Thursday, May 05, 2011

Created Light in Rav Sa'adyah Gaon's Commentary to Sefer Yetzirah

In an earlier post, I quoted Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag) explaining the concept of creation presented by Sefer Yetzira (SY) as words and numbers being etched in air thus creating things. At the time I suggested that “air” is a stand in for “space” and I also pointed out that, Resag cautions us not to take these images literally. They are only concepts that SY translates into something we humans can perceive in our mind. As I read on in SY, in Perek 4 Mishna 1 Resag returns to the subject of air/space in more detail and introduces the concept of “created matter”, – Davar Nivra - which was subsequently discussed by Rambam in MN as “created light” – Ohr Nivra. I believe this will shed a new light on Rambam’s usage of the term and its meaning.

Note: the following quotes are my English translation of a Hebrew translation of an Arabic translation. Rav Kafieh in his usual thorough way has given us a formidable tool. SY original is Hebrew. Resag translated it into Arabic. Rav Kafieh translated the Arabic back into Hebrew. The Hebrew translation of the Arabic translation is not identical to the original Hebrew. We witness the obvious: translations are interpretations and we cannot always rely on one to give us the true intention of the original. A caution to those who come to definite conclusions about the author’s intentions based on translations e.g. MN and Pirush Hamishna for one. Here is the original Mishna[1] and my translation of the R. Kafieh retranslated Resag translation.

עשר ספירות בלימה, אחת רוח אלקים חיים חי עולמים נכון כסאו מאז, ברוך ומבורך שמו תמיד לעולם ועד. וזו היא רוח הקדש,

“Parallel to the ten defined numbers, first there is the living God’s will, the life(force) of the worlds whose throne is there from beginning to end, blessed be His name forever. That is the holy will.”

Note how Resag translates “Ruach” – will. Resag then proceeds to explain that the numbers that are visualized as the tools used in the creation of the universe are there because of the will of the living God - רוח אלקים חיים.  The idea is that there was no physical activity on the part of God other than His willing things into existence. Resag explains:

Saying these three things about the Creator - חי עולמים נכון כסאו מאז, ברוך ומבורך שמו -
imparts a great secret. That is, it is telling us how we should visualize in our minds the existence of God, by using a metaphor as an approximation but not as [a] corporeal [depiction]. SY suggests that we visualize the relationship of God to the world just as we see the life force in its relationship to a living thing. We could therefore say metaphorically that He is the life force of the universe. From that, we can now move to the next level, the level of the intellect, and refer to Him as the intellect of the universe. The idea is to help us understand that a living thing, especially one who thinks, its body is more naturally refined [adin in Hebrew.] and more advanced than other bodies [e.g. plants or inanimate objects- DG], allowing for a life force to attach itself to it.  That life force can now sustain an intellect, because the life force is more refined than the body and the intellect is more refined than the life force. This conclusion leads us to visualizing that air, which is simple and refined, is the substance in which God’s will, namely His ability, spreads creating in it and giving it mobility just as the life force gives mobility to the body. The Creator is present in all this just as the intellect is present in the life force, directing it. Therefore, the closest metaphor for Him is that He is the intellect of the universe. Just as the intellect is not divisible even if the body is, so too the Creator is indivisible, even if the universe should divide. Just as the intellect does not die when the body dies so too the Creator would not cease to exist should the universe cease to. Just like the intellect, although is part of the soul, it is superior directing it, so too the Creator, although He is found in everything, He is superior over all and everything is directed by him. And just as the intellect permeates every part of the body, every bone, ligament, every dense matter, all are impacted by its direction so too the Creator is found in everything; no mountain, sea, or dense entity is without Him, just like air is everywhere… With these metaphors, the opinions of the believers will be strengthened in accepting that God is everywhere… that He watches over mankind’s actions… that He hearkens to every prayer for He is with the supplicant[2]…” 

We humans cannot apprehend something that is completely abstract. For us to recognize something as existent we have to visualize it in our terms. Without that, we will always question whether the entity we deduced logically or intuitively to exist, really does exist. SY is teaching us how to accomplish this by offering visualizations of God in a metaphorical sense; comparing His existence to the most abstract thing we know - our intellect. Just as our intellect resides in us so too do we place God’s will, the result of which we can perceive by looking at our environment, in air that permeates everything around us. The “air” Resag uses in this metaphor so far is the real air that surrounds us, the one we breathe.

We focused our [minds until now on the] idea that God is found everywhere using the palpable air we are surrounded by [as a metaphor]. We now [turn to] the even more refined “air” but also only as an approximation and allegory and not in a corporeal or exact perspective. The Scriptures refer to this second refined “air” as glory, “His glory fills the whole earth” (Yeshayahu 11:2) … The nation refers to it as Shechinah … and the author of this book refers to it as רוח אלקים חיים – the will of the living God… It is through this second refined “air” that the words of prophecy are brought and all the wonders are revealed to the prophets…. That is a “created thing” without doubt for anything that is not God is created.”
Resag is systematically leading us to accept the existence of an entity that is physically non-existent. He takes us to the limits of physicality and then tells us that this “refined air” is only imaginary, “an approximation and allegory”. In other words, when we use the words glory, Shechinah or anything similar as it relates to God, It is nothing but a mental visualization. We picture a presence as a proxy for God not that God has place and thus presence.  The “created thing” is a creation of our imagination, a visualization that allows us to conceive the “existence” of such an entity. Having visualized this “created thing” or “created light” we can now conceive a connection between that unknowable and unreachable entity and us.

And it is with this second refined air which is to the world as is the life force to man, that Moshe heard the “created words” in the visible air which is referred to as “the voice of the living God” (Devarim 5:23)…. And from it comes the knowledge of wisdom that God grants to His chosen…. It also is the source of courage and strength that God grants to the ones He wants to [grant]…”   

The way I understand Resag is that in the process of speculation about God and creation, we humans create in our minds certain pictures that help us actualize abstract concepts. We have to be careful and keep in mind that we are visualizing “created things”, “created lights” and hearing “created sounds”. We are seeing things created in our mind and although the experience is so intense that it appears real, it is no more than a mental vision. That is why he emphasizes several times that all these descriptions of “created things” are “an approximation and allegory”.  

I know that in other writings Resag comes across differently. It would appear in those places that he believes that God creates light, sound and entities to represent Him, a quite difficult idea to swallow, at least to me; here he is quite clear that it is only visualization. The commentary on SY was written about two years before his Emunot Vede’ot, according to Rav Kafieh, and was written for a more sophisticated audience, the reader of SY. I feel comfortable reading it as a standalone, presenting his undiluted opinion.  With this in mind, I also understand why Rambam accepts the concept in numerous places in MN although he insists at the same time that no physicality can be adduced to God. The preferred approach would be “negative apprehension” – Yediah Shelilit – but as a less sophisticated alternative, “created light” is acceptable.  

[1] It is also important to know that SY comes in a variety of different versions with quite marked variances. I adapted here to the version used by Resag. The different versions also have different numbering of chapters and mishnot. 
[2] This reminds me of Rambam in MN 3;52 “Man does not sit, move, and occupy himself when he is alone in his house, as he sits, moves and occupies himself when he is in the presence of a great king…”


  1. Nice post. I was waiting for that English translation and I was glad that I have found it in here.Thanks for sharing.I could say that translators really play a big role in our society.I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions.

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  3. Nice Article. The reason behind translation services is to have a wider coverage of the information. Am happy that the English version is now a vailable