Sefer Yeṣirah is one of the most enigmatic, yet influential, texts in the history of Jewish thought. The text is striking for its rhythmic phrasing and evocative language; it connects the essence of language with the foundations of the world. This short treatise has fascinated Jewish thinkers and kabbalists, as well as Western thinkers and writers, from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges.
Because of its unique style as well as the fact that it does not explicitly refer to other Jewish sources and was not quoted by other Jewish sources in late antiquity, it is difficult, if not impossible, to contextualize. When I present Sefer Yeṣirah for the first time to my students, I joke that after about 150 years of scholarship on Sefer Yeṣirah, we know almost everything about this book except for four minor issues: Who wrote it? Where and when was it written? What does it mean? And what was its "original" version? Scholars disagree about the time and context of the book, proposing first-century ce Hellenism, the rabbinic sphere of the second to sixth centuries CE, Neoplatonism of the fourth or fifth centuries CE, fifth to the sixth century CE Palestine, the Syriac-Christian milieu of the sixth to seventh century, or the ninth-century Islamic world. This diversity reflects what seems to be an inherent and radical inability to contextualize Sefer Yeṣirah.
Sefer Yeṣirah appeared in the Jewish world at the beginning of the tenth century. In this period, it was already interpreted as a canonical treatise by leading rabbinic figures living on three continents, and it had many different versions. The surprising appearance of Sefer Yeṣirah, as if out of the blue, is the result of its absence from the Jewish world before the tenth century, along with its immediate acceptance. Furthermore, Sefer Yeṣirah had a remarkable reception in Jewish milieus from the tenth century on. Joseph Dan describes the two main stages of its impact on the Jewish world—stages with little in common: in the first, between the tenth and the twelfth centuries, it was read by at least five commentators as a sort of philosophical or scientific text. In the second, from the end of the twelfth century on, it was interpreted by mystics and kabbalists as a mystical, mythical, and magical treatise. These facts about Sefer Yeṣirah's reception raise essential questions: Where was Sefer Yeṣirah before its canonization in the tenth-century rabbinic world? Why was Sefer Yeṣirah initially understood as a philosophical and scientific treatise, and later viewed as the canonical composition of Jewish mysticism?
My main goal in this book is to demonstrate that the evolution of Sefer Yeṣirah and its reception have something in common: they point us to an alternative picture of the history of Jewish thought in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. I claim that Sefer Yeṣirah is a rare surviving Jewish treatise written and edited around the seventh century by Jews who were familiar with Syriac Christianity and were far from the main circles of rabbinic learning. Sefer Yeṣirah does not show strong awareness of the articulations, insights, or even the existence of the rabbinic world. Sefer Yeṣirah, to put it slightly differently, conveys much information about its intellectual world in terms of language, physiology, astrology, and cosmology. We have no reason to assume that the text tries to conceal its context; it is more reasonable to assume that our information about its world is limited. Sefer Yeṣirah is a unique, fascinating, and information-packed trace of another and unknown Jewish environment. Similarly, in the second part of the book, when we follow the mystical, magical, or mythical ways in which Sefer Yeṣirah was understood before the end of the twelfth century, a trace of another Jewish milieu beyond the scope of the medieval canon of familiar rabbinic figures comes into view. An investigative integration of the above hypotheses can help us outline the "margins of Jewish mysticism," a Jewish mystical thought that was not included in the classical canon of Jewish thought, for various historical reasons, but that was very important for the development of a Jewish horizon of thought.
My conclusions, as with any scholarly work, are based on the work of other scholars, and references to their works are to be found throughout the book. I want to mention the works of four authors who particularly helped me reach my conclusions. Shlomo Pines's paper on the similarities between the first chapter of Sefer Yeṣirah and the Pseudo-Clementine homilies brings important evidence to bear in support of the possibility of a Christian-Syriac context for Sefer Yeṣirah. Guy Stroumsa, in his article about a possible Zoroastrian origin to the perception of the sefirotin Sefer Yeṣirah, referred to the importance of the sixth-century treatise The Mysteries of the Greek Letters, which, as I will demonstrate, can be of much help in contextualizing Sefer Yeṣirah. Haggai Ben-Shammai's article on the reception of Sefer Yeṣirah claims convincingly that Saadya's aims in interpreting Sefer Yeṣirah were apologetic and probably a reaction to other Sefer Yeṣirah commentaries concerned with myth, mysticism, and magic. And in two articles, Klaus Herrmann discusses fragments of commentaries to Sefer Yeṣirah preserved in the Cairo Geniza, written between the end of the tenth century or the beginning of the eleventh, in the spirit of Hekhalot literature. These fragments clearly demonstrate that there were other Jewish approaches to Sefer Yeṣirah before the end of the twelfth century, of which we know very little today. My work begins where these important studies leave off.
Sefer Yeṣirah: A Short Introduction
Sefer Yeṣirah opens with the following depiction of the creation of the world, from what it calls "thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom":
[With] thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom, YH, the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, the Living God, God Almighty, high and exalted, dwelling forever, and holy is his name (Isa. 57:15), created his universe with three books (sefarim): with a book (s.p/f.r) and a book (s.p/f.r) and a book (s.p/f.r).
Ten sefirotbelimah and twenty-two foundation letters.
Ten sefirotbelimah, the number of ten fingers, five opposite five, and the covenant of unity is exactly in the middle, by the word of tongue and mouth and the circumcision of the flesh.
Ten sefirotbelimah, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven. Understand with wisdom, and be wise with understanding. Test them and investigate them. Know and ponder and form. Get the thing clearly worked out and restore the Creator to his place. And their measure is ten, for they have no limit.
Ten sefirotbelimah, restrain your heart from thinking and restrain your mouth from speaking, and if your heart races, return to where you began, and remember that thus it is written: And the living creatures ran to and fro (Ezek. 1:14) and concerning this matter the covenant was made.
Accordingly, the number thirty-two, constituting the paths of wisdom, comprises the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet—the foundation letters—and the "ten sefirotbelimah
." The meaning of belimah
is unclear, and I think that the most reasonable meaning of the word sefirot
is, as Yehuda Liebes suggests, "counting" (ספירה); therefore, the phrase refers to the decimal counting system. In the paragraphs that we have just quoted, the ten sefirot
are joined to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet to constitute a new numerical formula of thirty-two, which it calls the "thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom."
Scrutinizing these passages, which discuss the role of the ten sefirot, it seems at first glance that Sefer Yeṣirah demands precision. The numbers are not to be read differently: "Ten sefirotbelimah, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven." It would seem that the numbers, in their precision, specify some kind of scientific or magical quality. Because of the numbers' ontological and epistemological qualities, a reader of Sefer Yeṣirah is obliged to understand their role in the creation of the world and in the created world: "Understand with wisdom, and be wise with understanding. Test them and investigate them. Know and ponder and form. Get the thing clearly worked out."
Along with its enthusiastic pathos about the obligation to investigate the world with numbers and letters, Sefer Yeṣirah warns readers about the very thing it counsels―thinking!: "Ten sefirotbelimah, restrain your heart from thinking and restrain your mouth from speaking, and if your heart races, return to where you began."
Regarding this gap between the obligation to investigate and the restriction on inquiry, Liebes has noted that it should be understood not only as a contradiction but also as an essential part of the dialectical path charted by Sefer Yeṣirah. According to Liebes, Sefer Yeṣirah is not merely a cosmogonic treatise; it would more accurate to read it as a treatise about heavenly creativity and the human creativity inspired by the creation of the world. He says that Sefer Yeṣirah is actually a treatise of ars poetica that argues creativity's need of both terms: one should understand the world and articulate one's insights, while also making room for astonishment, for prediscursive and unarticulated phenomena―without investigating them.
Poetic and surprising ideas, like the dual obligation/restriction of investigating the world, occur throughout Sefer Yeṣirah. Another example from the same chapter concerning the sefirot describes two unexpected dimensions alongside the familiar three spatial dimensions of the world: the moral dimension and the dimension of time: "Ten sefirotbelimah, and their measure is ten, for they have no limit: dimension of beginning and dimension of end, dimension of good and dimension of evil, dimension of above and dimension of below, dimension of east and dimension of west, dimension of north and dimension of south. And the unique lord, a trustworthy divine king, rules over them all from his holy abode forever and ever."
Thus the treatise asserts that, as with the ten sefirot, there are ten, not six, directions in the world. In addition to the familiar six directions—north, south, west, east, above, and below—there are four other directions: the moral dimension, which comprises the directions of good and evil; and a dimension formed by the directions of the beginning and the end. Such an approach demonstrates why so many people were inspired by Sefer Yeṣirah.
Following the first chapter, which is dedicated to discussions about the role of the ten sefirot, Sefer Yeṣirah discusses the role of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the creation of the world and in the created world. It divides the letters into three groups: the first group, comprising the letters alef, mem, and shin, is named immot, ummot, or ammot, a designation with no clear meaning in Hebrew. The second group, called the "double letters," contains the six letters that can be pronounced doubly: bet, gimel, dalet, kaf, pe, and taw, as well as the letter resh. The third group, called the "simple letters," comprises the remaining twelve letters of the Hebrew alphabet: "The twenty-two letters are the foundations: three immot letters, seven double (letters), and twelve simple (letters) . . . three immot A, M, Š . . . seven double letters B, G, D, K, P, R, T . . . twelve simple letters H, W, Z, Ḥ, Ṭ, Y, L, N, S, ', Ṣ, Q."
Notably, the criteria for this division are not clear-cut; we are left wondering about the basis for the division of the letters into these three groups. According to Sefer Yeṣirah, the triad of alef, mem, and shin represents initials to three of the four foundations: alef stands for air (אויר), mem for water (מים), and shin for fire (אש).
The next set of letters, the double letters, comprises the six Hebrew letters that can grammatically be pronounced in two ways—plosive and fricative, B, G, D; and K, P, T, as well as the letter resh. For example, the letter bet can be pronounced both as b and v; and the letter pe can be pronounced as p or as f. But to these six, rightfully identified as double letters, Sefer Yeṣirah adds the resh, which does not have a double pronunciation in regular Hebrew grammar. A few scholars have presented important accounts of the role of the resh, indicating contexts in which it could have had a double pronunciation. These observations explain why resh, and not other letters of the alphabet, had this attribute; I agree with Joseph Dan that grammatical determinants are not the only reason for this anomaly. As we saw at the beginning of this introduction, Sefer Yeṣirah argues that the world has ten dimensions and not six, in order to demonstrate that the number ten can be found in the foundation of the universe. Similarly, in the paragraphs dealing with the triad A-M-Š, Sefer Yeṣirah states that there are only three, not four, elements: air, water, and fire; it does not mention earth. As several scholars have stressed, Sefer Yeṣirah subjects the facts to its ends where necessary and, in the case before us, alters received wisdom so that the given will correlate with the preordained numbers in the three groups of letters, not the other way around. It seems that here, too, Sefer Yeṣirah wants to demonstrate that a classical typological number such as seven stands at the heart of the created world; therefore, the resh was added to the group.
The third group of letters, "simple letters," appear, in all probability, to be designated as such, insofar as they are devoid of any specific shared characteristics. Along with the grouping of the letters, the discussions in Sefer Yeṣirah devoted to the letters reveal a singular, if not innovative, attitude. The letters are described as units that can be combined with one another and thus create the world in its ontological and epistemological pathways. Combinations of letters demarcate, according to the book, the limits of human knowledge and allow for the creation of everything: "Twenty-two letters: he carved them out, he hewed them, he weighed them and exchanged them, he combined them and formed with them the life of all creation and the life of all that will form. How did he weigh and exchange them? Alef with them all, and them all with alef; bet with them all, and them all with bet. And they all rotate in turn. The result is that [they go out] by 221 (thirty-one) gates. The result is that all creation and all speech go out by one name."
In this description, we find that, despite a limited number of letters in the alphabet, amounting to one name, everything can be created: "the result is that all creation and all speech go out by one name." A similar approach to the letters, their infinite combinations, and creation that derives from them can be found later on in Sefer Yeṣirah: "How did he combine them? Two stones build two houses: three build six houses: four build twenty-four houses: five build 120 houses; six build 720 houses; seven build 5,040 houses. From here on, go out and ponder what the mouth cannot speak and what the eye cannot see and what the ear cannot hear."
This articulation that a limited number of basic signifiers, the letters or the stones, enable unlimited creativity within language, the houses, is interesting from a modern linguistic perspective. Since the basic components of the language expounded by Sefer Yeṣirah are not the phonemes but rather the written letters, the linguistic approach of Sefer Yeṣirah presents a clear preference for written language over speech. And consider the linguistic structure advanced by Sefer Yeṣirah: the limited number of signifiers and unlimited creativity within language looks like a raw model of the de-Sausurian differentiation between parole and langue: "From here on, go out and ponder what the mouth cannot speak and what the eye cannot see and what the ear cannot hear."
The Structure of Discussion About the Letters
Sefer Yeṣirah's discussions about the ten sefirot and the twenty-two letters contain interesting insights as well as an exposition of the enduring structures involved in sustaining the created world. An example of such a structure is the three parallel levels of the created world. According to Sefer Yeṣirah, each letter functions and signifies on three levels: the celestial world or the universe (עולם), mankind or the human body (נפש), and the year or time (שנה): "Seven double letters: B, G, D, K, P, R, T. He carved and hewed them, he combined them, weighed them and he formed with them the planets in the universe, the days in the year and the apertures in mankind . . . . He made bet rule, and bound to it a crown, and combined one with another, and formed with it Saturn in the universe, the Sabbath in the year, and the mouth in mankind."
Every letter is responsible for a certain aspect of each level. It seems that a letter governs its aspect, perhaps even creating it. Thus in the last example, the letter bet rules: "Saturn in the universe, the Sabbath in the year, and the mouth in mankind." Another structural issue, which is of much interest yet remains abstruse, is the description of the last triple structure, A-M-Š., as divided into male and female. Although assumptions as to the meaning of this division may abound, the laconic language of Sefer Yeṣirah, on this issue as well as others, tends to hide more than it reveals. For example, one finds this division described: "He made alef rule over wind, and bound to it a crown, and combined them with each other, and formed with them air in the universe, and humidity in the year, and corpse in mankind, male and female—male with alef, mem, shin, and female with alef, shin, mem.."
Abraham the Patriarch and Sefer Yeṣirah
Abruptly, at the end of Sefer Yeṣirah, the book's laconic discussions are replaced by a new and totally different discourse, which appears in a sole paragraph describing Abram the patriarch as having investigated and understood the secrets of Sefer Yeṣirah: "When Abraham our father came, and looked, and saw, and investigated, and understood, and carved, and combined, and hewed, and pondered, and succeeded, the Lord of all was revealed to him. And he made him sit in his lap, and kissed him upon his head. He called him his friend and named him his son, and made a covenant with him and his seed forever."
The last paragraph is thought to be from a late layer in the evolution of Sefer Yeṣirah because of its pronounced developed literary form. Further support for the view that this paragraph is alien to the spirit of Sefer Yeṣirah can be seen in the fact that biblical heroes or later Jewish figures had otherwise received no mention in the body of Sefer Yeṣirah, as well as in the fact that in this paragraph, Abraham is said to be contemplating an already-extant Sefer Yeṣirah. Furthermore, although there are versions of this paragraph in all the recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah, its second part, which gives a detailed description of the meeting of God and Abraham—"And he made him sit in his lap, and kissed him upon his head. He called him his friend and named him his son, and made a covenant with him and his seed forever"―is absent from the earliest recension of Sefer Yeṣirah, from the tenth-century manuscript found in the Cairo Geniza.
Gershom Scholem and Moshe Idel give divergent readings of Abraham's contemplative relationship to Sefer Yeṣirah. Scholem argued that when Abraham studied Sefer Yeṣirah, he achieved a mystical revelation. In this mystical vision, God "made him sit in his lap, and kissed him upon his head. He called him his friend and named him his son." Idel argues that the key word in this paragraph is "succeeded," demonstrating that after Abraham "came, and looked and saw and investigated, and understood, and carved and combined, and hewed, and pondered," he was equal to God: he could create the world and had the highest magical abilities.
It is difficult to decide whether this paragraph belongs to the early version of Sefer Yeṣirah. Nevertheless, throughout the centuries, in the eyes of most readers of Sefer Yeṣirah, this paragraph was not just taken to be integral to Sefer Yeṣirah but was considered its most important paragraph. From a very early stage, because of this paragraph, Sefer Yeṣirah was attributed to Abraham.
How to Place Sefer Yeṣirah in Context
Most of Sefer Yeṣirah concerns the role, status, and function of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the creation of the world and in the created world. Although Sefer Yeṣirah begins by declaring that the world was created by "thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom," Ithamar Gruenwald has shown that its main interest is in the twenty-two letters of the alphabet and therefore does not mention the ten sefirot after the first chapter. The common assumption in Sefer Yeṣirah scholarship has nevertheless been that Sefer Yeṣirah's approach to the alphabet and its role in the creation of the world is similar to the normative Jewish perception of the Hebrew letters—in other words, the approach of the rabbinic and Hekhalot literatures. Most scholars who have tried to find a context for Sefer Yeṣirah have consequently not given much attention to the issue of the letters and have preferred to focus on two other matters: the origins of the notion of the ten sefirot; and the equivalents between more specific notions or terms in Sefer Yeṣirah and those found in other Jewish and non-Jewish texts of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.
This book takes a step back to examine the context of Sefer Yeṣirah by considering its approach to the letters, which are, after all, its main interest. I argue that the attitude taken by Sefer Yeṣirah to the role of the Hebrew alphabet is substantially different from that of other Jewish sources. Paying close attention to how Sefer Yeṣirah talks about the letters can open new horizons and can assist in suggesting a context for the book.
In Chapter 1, I will present a panoramic picture of relevant approaches from non-Jewish sources to alphabetic letters in texts from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. Those sources will later help us contextualize Sefer Yeṣirah.
Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the main role of the alphabet in Sefer Yeṣirah: the creation of the world based on letters. These chapters identify two traditions known to late antiquity that give this sort of account of the creation of the world. One describes the creation of the world from the ineffable name or its letters; the other holds that the world was created by all twenty-two letters of the alphabet. Close scrutiny of these two traditions shows that in rabbinic sources, the dominant notion was that the world was created with the letters of the ineffable name, while in non-Jewish and, especially, in Christian sources, we can find the account of the creation of the world from the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. As the final step of the inquiry in these chapters, I will strengthen the case for Sefer Yeṣirah's connection to the Christian-Syriac world. There are many good reasons to assume that Sefer Yeṣirah's writers or editors lived sometime around the seventh century and were deeply familiar with Syriac notions. This conclusion, which relies on concrete and contextual resemblances, should be seen in light of the apparent near-absence of engagement between Syriac Christianity and the rabbinic culture in Babylonia: we have very few examples showing a possible influence of Syriac texts on rabbinic ones.
How Was Sefer Yeṣirah Understood by Its Early Readers?
Sefer Yeṣirah was accepted into the rabbinic canon in the tenth century. Before the second half of the twelfth century, it had spawned at least four commentaries that can be roughly defined as scientific-philosophical in nature. Nevertheless, in the last three decades, a number of studies dealing with different issues in the history of the reception of Sefer Yeṣirah have all taken the view that even before the last part of the twelfth century, Sefer Yeṣirah was understood as a mystical, mythical, or magical treatise.
In Chapter 4, I will look at an early and enigmatic time in the history of Sefer Yeṣirah, the unknown period beginning when it was conceived up until the tenth century. I will examine two traces of how Sefer Yeṣirah was understood in the Jewish world. The first is a short gloss inserted into some recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah before the tenth century. A careful reading of this gloss reveals that its author was influenced by the Hekhalot literature and other Jewish myths and read Sefer Yeṣirah in that context. The second trace of a Jewish reception of Sefer Yeṣirah is the well-known ninth-century epistle of Agobard of Lyon, which describes the insolence of the Jews. I suggest that the ninth-century French Jews whom Agobard describes were probably acquainted with the cosmogony of Sefer Yeṣirah, though not necessarily with Sefer Yeṣirah itself, and saw that cosmogony as part of a wider mythical and mystical realm.
Chapter 5 examines sources testifying to how Sefer Yeṣirah was understood between the tenth century and the end of the twelfth century. Central to this chapter is a discussion of a medieval midrash about Sefer Yeṣirah and Ben Sira, preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript and composed between the ninth and the eleventh centuries. This midrash has been discussed in the scholarly literature, but inaccurate dating and insufficient analysis of its contents have prevented scholars from fully understanding its importance in the history of the reception of Sefer Yeṣirah. Sefer Yeṣirah is here described in an unambiguously mythical and magical manner that reflects a common understanding of this treatise at the time. In addition to investigating this lengthy midrash, I will reexamine Rashi's treatment of Sefer Yeṣirah and argue that he was influenced by this midrash about Sefer Yeṣirah and Ben Sira. Last, I will discuss a short, very popular, and boldly mystical statement that was included in most recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah before the eleventh century.
Should Sefer Yeṣirah Be Considered a Book?
In the first comprehensive commentary on Sefer Yeṣirah, R. Saadya Gaon states that there are several versions of the text and consequently that one of the purposes of his commentary is to determine the correct one. Saadya was not alone in noting the textual problems of Sefer Yeṣirah, which were, in fact, discussed by most of its early commentators. Indeed, the first three commentaries that were written on Sefer Yeṣirah—by Saadya, Dunash Ibn Tamim, and Shabbetai Donnolo—were written on the basis of different versions of Sefer Yeṣirah. The fact that there are three (or possibly more) main recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah raises fundamental issues: What is it exactly that we intend to date when discussing Sefer Yeṣirah? Is it viable to assume that there is one urtext written by a single author whose date needs to be determined? How can we establish the date of a treatise when we cannot reconstruct its earliest version and when there is not even scholarly agreement about the very existence of such an original?
Daniel Abrams, in his extensive and comprehensive study about kabbalistic manuscripts and textual theory, suggests an original path to investigate Sefer Yeṣirah. According to Abrams, since it is essentially impossible to reconstruct Sefer Yeṣirah's urtext and since there are great differences between the manuscripts of this composition, Sefer Yeṣirah scholarship should focus on more valid evidence: the manuscripts themselves. He says, in other words, that there is no Sefer Yeṣirah (Book of formation) but rather Sifrei Yeṣirah (Books of formation) and therefore instead of trying in vain to establish the "original" Sefer Yeṣirah, one should trace the history of Sefer Yeṣirah's acceptance and the ways that this fluid text had been modified over the years by its medieval commentators. Each recension reflects, according to Abrams, a certain moment in Sefer Yeṣirah's history of acceptance, and that moment should be committed to scrutiny.
Abrams did not offer textual evidence to support his argument, and although his theoretical suggestion appeals to me, I did not find much support for it in the manuscripts of Sefer Yeṣirah. In my opinion, the textual history of Sefer Yeṣirah should be divided into two stages: in the first stage, before the tenth century, there are indeed great differences between the recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah. During that period, the book was edited and reedited by various redactors, and a few glosses were inserted. That was the reason for the discomfiture of its early commentators with regard to its correct version. Therefore, in analyzing the history of Sefer Yeṣirah before the tenth century, I used a similar method to the one that Abrams suggested. Nevertheless, in the second stage, after the tenth century, the three recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah remained the main ones, and it would be rare to find new glosses within Sefer Yeṣirah. Therefore, the assumption that the book continues to change during the High Middle Ages has no textual support. From a careful reading of tens of manuscripts of Sefer Yeṣirah, I have not found evidence of conspicuous interventions of late medieval commentators in the versions of Sefer Yeṣirah but rather, the contrary. New versions that combine the short and the long recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah constitute the main modification that can be encountered.
The differences between the versions of Sefer Yeṣirah, hence, occurred before the book was interpreted by its early commentators, and it seems that these commentaries framed its versions. Even if one scrutinizes the three main recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah, the differences between them are less crucial than might be assumed. At first glance, they are mainly differences in length and manner of editing that did not influence the structure of the book and its basic arguments. Ithamar Gruenwald, who published the first critical edition of Sefer Yeṣirah, has articulated it: "The three recensions differ from one another mainly in the length of the text and in inner organization of the material. The differences of reading between the three recensions are not as many as is generally assumed."
There are, as Gruenwald states, great differences between the image of Sefer Yeṣirah in scholarship and the reality of this book according to its manuscripts. We would not be wrong in saying that the textual problem of the version(s) is less complicated than assumed and that those problems were sometimes over-theorized in scholarship. From all the recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah known to me, the basic issues of the book remain stable: in all the recensions, twenty-two letters are divided into the same three groups: immot, "doubles," and "simples." Each of these groups contains the same letters without variations, and the discussions about the letters use identical terminology and symbolism. Similarly, in all the recensions, the first paragraphs of Sefer Yeṣirah deal with the ten sefirot, and only minor differences can be found between the recensions. For example, the differences between the long and the short recensions are related to the length of the discussion but are not reflected nor do they have any influence on the meaning or the symbolism of each letter. In the same vein, the great differences between Saadya's recension and other recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah are related to the way in which the text is edited, but there are merely a few differences in terms of content and terminology.
A different methodology to analyze the textual labyrinth of Sefer Yeṣirah has been suggested by Gruenwald and Ronit Meroz. Forty years ago, Gruenwald suggested that there are thematic and terminological reasons for making a distinction between Sefer Yeṣirah's first chapter and subsequent chapters of the book and that it seems that the first chapter reflects a different treatise, which was integrated into Sefer Yeṣirah. Such an approach can help explain, for example, the opening paragraph of the book by determining the odd number: thirty-two, as an editorial addition. This number thirty-two is not discussed throughout Sefer Yeṣirah; it was added by an editor of the book who combined together the main chapters of the book discussing the twenty-two alphabetical letters, with the new chapter about the ten sefirot. In an alternative suggestion put forth a few years ago, Meroz argues that Sefer Yeṣirah comprised three distinct compositions that are described in the opening paragraph as: a book, a book, and a book (ספר, ספר, וספר). If Gruenwald's or Meroz's hypothesis is correct, we must suppose, as Meroz noted, that the three main recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah all evolved from one branch—after the book was redacted, and that the sections of Sefer Yeṣirah known to us had already been edited at that juncture. It would be a mistake to assume that the early forms of Sefer Yeṣirah are merely a result of a redaction of various preexisting compositions. It would be more suitable to perceive it as a combination between original and eclectic materials. In comparison with other late antiquity and medieval compositions, such as the Hekhalot literature, Sefer haBahir, and the Zoharic literature, Sefer Yeṣirah, despite all the differences between its recensions, seems to have a coherent structure with unique and distinct terminology. Of course, Sefer Yeṣirah is a layered text, and preceding the tenth century, its readers edited it, reedited it, and added material. Nevertheless, we have to listen to the manuscripts themselves and observe the great similarities between the three recensions. We should conclude that there was an early composition from which the three main recensions of Sefer Yeṣirah developed, a composition that Peter Hayman tried to reconstruct as "the earliest recoverable text of Sefer Yeṣirah."
My main goal in this study is not to publish a new edition of the "early" Sefer Yeṣirah, so I will not discuss every word in the book with the purpose of determining whether it is part of that early version. My purpose is to date and locate the early version of Sefer Yeṣirah; in order to do so, I will determine the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of central themes and basic issues that relate to the core of Sefer Yeṣirah and that can be found in all its recensions.