Friday, April 01, 2011

Resag and The Authorship of Sefer Yetzirah. Avraham Avinu May Have Been Wrong!

Rav Sa’adyah Gaon here, is known as the author of Emunot Vede’ot an early and probably the first Jewish philosophical work written in the middle ages.  Less known is that he was also the author of an Arabic translation and commentary on the Sefer Yetzira. Traditionally, Sefer Yetzira is thought to be a mystical/kabalistic book transmitted from antiquity attributed to Avraham Avinu. Rav Sa’adyah (Resag) explains it in a philosophical rationalist way. I got interested in it through reading a chapter in Yosef Dan’s History of Kabbalah where he dissects Resag’s commentary. Rav Kafieh Z”L, the great and prolific Yemmenite scholar and writer, translated the commentary into Hebrew and made it accessible to a contemporary reader. I started reading it and if I have the fortitude and perseverance will continue to do so and comment as I come across interesting subjects. As a start I will translate a short segment in the introduction which I find fascinating and again illustrates how close-minded and far we have come from our great medieval Halachists and thinkers.

Sefer Yetzira deals with creation as the name suggests. It discusses the transition from absolute nothingness to existence. Resag explains that it does not discuss science as we know it but how science came into existence. It is not metaphysics which deals with the non-physical; it is also not physics which attempts to understand physical existence. It attempts to understand what we would call in modern parlance the moment of the “Big Bang”. As I was reading this, I had an insight about how Resag understands Ma’aseh Breishit as opposed to Ma’aseh Merkavah from one side and Physics from the other. Ma’aseh Breishit is the divider or rather the transition from one to the other. I am not sure if Rambam agrees with that though I have a hunch he may. I will have to think further about that as I read further. Sorry, I am digressing.

In the introduction, Resag presents nine different theories about how the world came into existence starting from the Aristotelian eternal universe ending with the Torah creation from nothingness and every other rational possibility in between. The eighth theory argues for God creating what he calls “air” and placing “numbers” and “words” in it. The idea is that everything can be described mathematically considering everything physical has substance that can be represented by numbers while the concept that holds things together is represented by words. This is the idea described in Sefer Yetzira and Resag suggests that as we read on we will get a clearer picture. I will come back to this in a separate post as Resag gives a very interesting insight on what occurred at Sinai. The ninth theory, is what Resag calls the Torah approach and the correct one which holds that physical existence came into being in one leap without the intermediate period of “air”, “numbers” and “words”. This theory accepts that there are “numbers” and “words” but they are part of existence as we know it rather that the cause for existence. The cause for existence is God and we do not know, nor can we ever know, how that transition from nothingness to existence came about.

This presentation indicates that the proponent of the eighth theory, namely the author of Sefer Yetzira, though not wrong intrinsically, is however wrong conceptually. In other words, his concept of creation is lacking as he conflates process with actuality. Now comes the surprising and shocking to some, very instructive to others, part which I will translate verbatim (almost).    

Having presented these nine theories…. We will now complete the introduction to this book by commenting on the tradition that we received from the ancients as well as it is noted at the end of this book itself, that Avraham Avinu authored this book, and that once he understood God appeared to him. They are not suggesting that he [Avraham] set down the words [orally or to paper] in this form but rather that he developed these ideas [concepts] in his mind, establishing that words and numbers are the source of everything as we will explain [in the book and commentary]. He taught these ideas to himself and to his monotheistic followers. These were transmitted continuously orally within our nation [community], just as the Mishna was transmitted orally and unwritten and as parts of the Scriptures were transmitted orally, for example Shlomo’s parables which were copied by Chizkyahu the Judean king and his people. At the time that the nation’s sages gathered to collect the ideas [concepts] of the Mishna and attach their own words to them thus setting them down so too did they do with the concepts of this book. That is why we find [in this book] some verses and this [specific] order. (I am not sure what these last few words mean – DG). The place this book was written is Eretz Israel, as the letters are based on their language where there are two Dalets and so on and Resh with a Dagesh and without as is their custom.”

I find this fascinating especially in view of the traditional point of view that is common in our contemporary community. First, it tells us that when a sefer is attributed to someone it means that it is based on that person’s ideas rather than authorship. But even more fascinating is that it presents Jewish theology as an evolving process. In other words, Avraham developed his own ideas about God and creation which were not necessarily complete until Sinai (see the first chapter in MT Hilchot Avodah Zara for an identical presentation and my article here for a discussion on the subject as it pertains to the apprehension of God). It is at Sinai that the completed Jewish theologies of creation was established and were put to words in the first chapters of Breishit. Avraham’s ideas were a stepping-stone to the concepts at Sinai but fell short of the true understanding of creation.

I leave you with these thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom.



  1. 1. Why would the community preserve this ancient work, based upon an old paradigm's way of thinking about Shem Hashem transcended at Sinai?

    2. Do you see any indication that Rambam had any interest in this work?

  2. Rav Aryeh Kaplan also published an excellent translation of Sefer Yetzirah into English. ISBN 0-87728-855-0


  3. RJS,

    Avraham Avinus understanding of HKBH is a stepping stone to Moshe Rabbeinu's understanding. They are not exclusive but one cannot get to the higher level without getting the lower one.

    I do not think (Though I am not sure) that Rambam refers to it but he certainly knew the Shitot of Resag and he expounds them very succinctly in this perush of Sefer Yetzirah. Rav Kafieh in the introduction argues that Resag and Rambam are much closer than scholars think and I tend to accept him. He argues vehemently that Resag was not a Kalam follower as opposed to Wolfson and others who place him in that camp. When it comes to Resag and Rambam Rav Kafieh to me is more reliable than anyone else (including Brisk:-)).

    Avraham Thank you. I am planning to look at sefer Yetzirah with the commentary of Resag,Abulafia and Remak. That should really get me going!

  4. Rambam goes out of his way to say that all mesorah regarding Maase Breishet was lost in his time, all that remained was the hints of the Midrashim and the sifrei neviim. I find it difficult to believe that Rambam would not have made reference to this work if he believed it accurately and usefully conveyed the teachings of Avraham Avinu about maase bresisheet, as Resag suggests. I find it much more credible that Rambam disagreed with Resag with regard to this work.