The Sefer Yetzirah, which means “Book of Formation,” is a short book about the theories of ma’aseh bereshit, the mystical account of the creation of the universe. The Sefer Yetzirah is the earliest Hebrew text of speculative mystical Jewish thought, appearing sometime between the third and sixth centuries C.E. Like the theories of ma’aseh bereshit, the Sefer Yetzirah addresses the creation of the universe, drawing heavily on images from the very beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Bible’s Old Testament. Basing its speculations on theories that had long been discussed by kabbalists, the book argues that God created the world with thirty-two secret paths of wisdom. These paths of wisdom are composed of the ten sefirot and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The first chapter of the Sefer Yetzirah explains the sefirot—the first time the sefirot appear in Jewish literature. The sefirot of the Sefer Yetzirah differ from the ten “aspects of God” that appear later in kabbalistic thought. Here they take the form of numbers with mystical qualities, each one representing the stages of creation. Beginning with the first sefirah, Keter, the sefirot emanate from one another as one number follows another. The first sefirah is the spirit of God. Next come air, water, and fire. From the air come the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. From water comes chaos and from fire come the angels and God’s throne, as described in the ma’seh merkavah. The next six sefirot represent the various dimensions of space. The final sefirah, Shekhinah, represents God’s presence in the world of material reality.
The Torah tends to personify God as a humanlike being who can talk and interact with people on earth—the familiar image of an old bearded man in the sky. The Sefer Yetzirah presents God as an unknowable, genderless force entirely devoid of form or emotion. In the Torah, God creates simply by using the power of his word, his command. But in the Sefer Yetzirah, God creates through emanations, or offshoots, of himself. God becomes a part of the universe, everywhere and nowhere at once, a spirit with infinite power. This initial mystical theory—that the world was created through the emanations of the sefirot—forms the foundation of kabbalistic thought and is the single most powerful source of controversy surrounding Kabbalah. Everything about the sefirot, from where they came from to what they mean, has been disputed by followers of Kabbalah for many hundreds of years.