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Letters are a crucial part of the kabbalistic theory of creation. The Sefer Yetzirah says God created the world in part by using the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Bible tells of God creating the universe with a few words, like “Let there be light,” but the Sefer Yetzirah takes that account one step further. Remember that kabbalists believe God existed before the creation of the universe, and that God then created the universe in the form of the sefirot—the ten sacred numbers. Following the creation of the numbers, the second set of sefirot appeared—the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Kabbalists believe these letters combined into different combinations, and in turn created the world. As the letters interacted, parts of the world took shape. Each letter and word created both matter and other letters and words, giving rise to language and the universe at the same time.
The key role of numbers and letters in the kabbalistic account of creation makes clear why followers of Kabbalah treat language with such profound respect. Kabbalists pore over their literature so closely and carefully not just to ensure that they understand every layer of meaning but also to honor the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the same letters and words that they believe conjured the world into existence. Some followers of Kabbalah consider it a crime to spell out God’s name, or to alter the wording or meaning of sacred texts—doing so violates the sanctity of the God and the words that formed the framework of the universe.
Not everyone viewed the Sefer Yetzirah with reverence. During the Middle Ages in France and Germany, many people considered the Sefer Yetzirah a guide to the unholy use of magic. Some cited the kabbalistic believe in golems as proof. Golems are creatures made of dust that kabbalists believe can be brought to life by reciting or writing certain words. Kabbalist teachings describe two ways to make and kill a golem. One involves reciting a string of “creation words.” (To kill it, one walks in the other direction, reciting the same words backwards.) The other way to bring a Golem to life is to inscribe the word “emet” on its forehead. “Emet” is Hebrew for “truth.” (Then, to kill it, one must erase the first letter from the name so the word reads “met,” which means “dead” in Hebrew.) Whether or not golems truly exist, they prove that kabbalists believe deeply in the magical power of words, a power strong enough to create and destroy life.
Many leading kabbalists rejected the notion that words could be used to create life and alter the universe. Moses Cordovero, one of the kabbalistic leaders of Safed, believed that words could create animated beings—things that moved—but could never instill a spirit or soul. Isaac Luria, another leading figure in Kabbalah, objected to the use of language for magic because it interfered with God’s plan for the universe. Luria believed Kabbalah followers should search for the meaning of magical words but not use those words to manipulate the universe.