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Exegesis, interpretation and textual amalgamation
Shabbatai Donnolo’s reading of the Sefer Yetzirah

Piergabriele Mancuso


An anonymous text, pseudo-epigraphically attributed to Avraham, Sefer Yetzirah holds several world records as one of the shortest Hebrew texts – even in its longest version amounting to no more than two thousand words – that since the time of its composition and until today has been the object of a virtually uninterrupted exegetical and interpretative chain, from the Neo-Platonic readings in the 9th-10th century, through Kabbalistic, and theosophical-theurgical, to the post-modern interpretation and New Age vagaries, in my view historically and semantically non-sensical and ungrounded, but still worth considering.

It is certainly not my intention now to deal with such a complex problem, or even trying to go a little bit deeper into the reason why of Sefer Yetzirah’s extraordinary exegetical success but allow me for a few thoughts and a bunch of hypotheses.

As clearly underlined by Joseph Dan in his seminal works on early Jewish mysticism, despite the numerous hypotheses drawn about the genesis of Sefer Yetzirah – each one plausible but no one wholly convincing or supported by objective evidence – and even though some texts dealing with same topic of Sefer Yetzirah are attested and even quoted in rabbinical sources dating between the 3rd and the 6th century, the only thing we know for sure is that between the late 9th and the early 10th century a text called Sefer Yetzirah, basically the same as we know today, and circulating in different versions emerged, apparently out of the blue, in different spots of the Jewish Diaspora in the Mediterranean, from the eastern to the western North of Africa, to the south of Italy.1 See for example “The Beginning of Jewish Mysticism in Europe,” in Cecil Roth, ed., TheWorld History of the Jewish People- The Dark Ages. Tel-Aviv, 1966, pp. 282-290, but especially “The three phases of the history of Sefer Yezirah,” in idem, Jewish Mysticism—Late Antiquity, Northvale NJ- Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 155-187. In other words, whatever the hypothesis one wants to accept, whether dating Sefer Yetzirah to the 1st-2nd century or to the later period, between the 5th and even 6th-7th centuries, in any case there seems to be a wide, and for time being also largely unfillable gap between the time of Sefer Yetzirah’s redaction and its appearance in the 9th-10th century. What happened to Sefer Yetzirah during those centuries, and how could such an important text, labelled in the 10th century not only as authoritative but even sacred to be attributed to Abraham, disappear for such long a time, and then to come up to surface at the same time and in different places, in different versions but still, despite all, preserving an overall similar physiognomy and easily detectable macro-structure?

If we step a bit backward from these specific questions and try to give a wider look at the whole mosaic, what we see is a series of scattered tesserae, some of which suggesting the existence of a tight correlation between the text and its main version, and the exegetical work done on it, as if the comment on a text had become part of the text itself, one melting into the other and eventually giving birth to a third element, a sort of augmented new version that later commentators might eventually mistake as the original text and then comment on it. This happens there where the two elements of the equation – the text and its commentary – share the same or very similar linguistic fabrics.

From text to commentary

In my view one of the most significant examples of linguistic proximity between commented text and commentary Sefer Hakhmoni (“The Book of the Wise Man”), the opus magnum of Shabbatai Donnolo, a renown rofé, doctor and pharmacologist, astrologer and nonetheless rabbinical exegete, who was born in the south of Italy, in Oria, a small town not far from Brindisi, in the Apulian region (the so-called “heel of the Italian booth”), around the year 912.

As he says in the introductory section to the work, at the age of twelve he left the native town to settle in other Byzantine areas, as we know from other external sources (especially from the hagiography of Saint Nilus), quite certainly in Rossano Calabro, until the mid-11th century, the capital city of the Byzantine thema (administrative region). Here the young Shabbatai begun his medical curriculum, that as we know at that time included the study of mathematica, astrology, as well as philosophy, especially Neo-Platonism. Trained by non-Jewish scholars, including an astrologer probably coming from Baghdad, and being in very good terms with the socio-political and cultural Christian-Byzantine environment to become court physician and then be nicknamed “Domnulus” (lit. “little lord”), in 946, then at the age of thirty-four, Shabbatai composed the Sefer Hakhmoni, the summa of his own medical-astrological and exegetical knowledge. Sefer Hakhmoni, let me stress, is not a commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, or at least it should not be considered only as such, but a comprehensive analysis of the complex problem concerning the relationship between the outer and the inner spheres, the macrocosm, and the microcosm, which means the connections between the universe and the earth, the planets, the stars, the constellations, and the organs of the living body.

Sefer Hakhmoni consists of three main sections: first, a comprehensive autobiographical sketch together with a rhymed poem and a table of ephemerides, one of the earliest done in Hebrew, “photographing” the sky as seen from a southern Italian parallel (most certainly the area of Rossano Calabro); the second part is commentary on Genesis 1:26 (“Let’s make man in our image, after our likeness”), while the third a final part is a commentary on Sefer Yetzirah. There is a very thematical and logical strong bond between the commentary on Genesis and the commentary on Sefer Yetzirah: while on the hand, in the commentary on Genesis, Donnolo tries and explain logically the apparent aporias that emerge from the biblical text, and especially in relation to the creation of the human beings, in the commentary on Sefer Yetzirah he traces the creative patterns that underlie the creation of the world, the genetical models that precede the phenomenon of briat ha-‘olam, the making of the world or creation ex-nihilo as said in the book of Genesis. The yetzirat ha-‘olam, the making of the universe as told in Sefer Yetzirah, and the genetic archetypes that came out from the combined actions of the otiyyot (letters of the Hebrew alphabet) and the sefirot are the building plans that God displayed in front of Him for the making of the beriah, the creation of the material world. Genesis’s “tzelem” and “demut” (image and likeness), do not refer to the physical, bodily and materials features of the Creators but to the creative plans according to which the ‘olam/world came to light. According to Donnolo’s interpretation, it follows, Sefer Yetzirah should logically predate the Torah and its narrative, holding a chronologically much higher position in the creative process.

This might explain why Donnolo accept Sefer Yetzirah‘s attribution to Avraham: just as the Torah that describes events that took place in the microcosm since its inception/beriah and throughout the history of the Jewish people, was given to Moses on the Sinai, so Sefer Yetzirah that precedes the biblical narrative and deals with universal creative patterns, can be attributed to Avraham, the initiator of monotheism on a universal scale.

Despite all this, despite the high level of sanctity that it holds, Sefer Yetzirah poses to Donnolo a number of problems, especially in its “melothesia”, the association of various parts of the body, diseases, and drugs with the nature of the sun, moon, planets, and the twelve astrological signs or constellations. Having explained in the commentary on Genesis 1.26 the metaphysical meaning of demut and tzelem, in the commentary on Sefer Yetzirah Donnolo embarks on a very detailed and punctual analysis of Sefer Yetzirah‘s seemingly erroneous melothesia correspondences. While classic melothesia – says Donnolo – describes the existing bonds between the microcosm and macrocosms, that is the upper and sublunar worlds – both caducous products of the beriah, the creation ex nihilo Sefer Yetzirah singles out the pre-creational genetic patterns which do not necessarily have to correspond to the created world.

To reconcile Sefer Yetzirah‘s melothesia with the classic/Ptolemaic system, Donnolo basically paraphrases the text Sefer Yetzirah, rewording it completely piece by piece, word by word, most of the time intermitting his own interpretations into the text of Sefer Yetzirah‘s itself, and only occasionally focusing on issues of a more general nature. This naturally leads to a phenomenon of “textual expansion” where the two components of the work – the commented text and the commentary – might collapse into a unique textual fabric.

Let’s give a look to a couple of passages. The first is taken from the incipit of Sefer Yetzirah, corresponding to chapters 1-3 of Hayman’s edition 2 A. Peter Hayman, Sefer Yesira—Edition, Translation and Text-Critical Commentary, Tübingen, 2004, pp. 59-69. The text of Donnolo’s commentary is taken from Piergabriele Mancuso, Shabbatai Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni – Introduction, Critical Text, and Annotated English Translation, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2010, p. 285. . The text of Sefer Yetzirah has been highlighted in bold characters:

[SY par. 1] By means of thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom, Y-h – Lord of Hosts, God of Israel, Almighty God, High and Exalted, dwelling for ever, Holy is His name – carved out His universe. He created His universe with three groups of letters [sefarim], with s-p-r, s-p-r and s-p-w-r. These are the thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom [by which] Y-h God of Hosts – carved out His world: [SY par. 2]ten sefirot of belimah, and twenty-two letters of the Torah, which are the foundation of the world. [SY par. 3] The ten sefirot of belimah and the covenant is in the middle corresponding [literally, “resemble”] to the number of the ten fingers of the hands and the ten toes of the feet, and the One God is exactly in the middle of the ten sefirot of belimah. Likewise, the covenant of the Unique One is exactly in the middle of the ten fingers of the hand, whichare five against five and in the tongue and the mouth, so as to declare the unity of God. Similarly, the covenant of the Unique One is exactly in the middle of the ten toes of the feet, which are five against five, in the circumcision of the foreskin, which is the sexual organ [literally: “nakedness”],as it is written: In order to gaze upon their nakedness [Hab. 2:15].

I think it’s clear what is Donnolo’s main method of interpretation: it consists of short exegetical insertions that follow and intermingle with the text of the Sefer Yetzirah, something after all quite commonplace in rabbinical exegesis (as in Sefer Rossina, a commentary on the Bible composed probably in Rossano Calabro, Donnolo’s main place of residence, just to mention a work belonging to the same chronological and geographical context). These little additions, bit by bit clarifying the meaning of the text, pave the way to broader and more articulated forms of interpretation. This is the case of the commentary on the second chapter of Sefer Yetzirahten sefirot of belimah, and twenty-two letters – where Donnolo specifies that the twenty-two letters are not abstract elements but the signs making up the Torah, a concept that later in the commentary he will be expand so as to think and speak about Sefer Yetzirah itself in terms of a general creative plan that God displayed in front of him for the creation of the universe, a sort of “earlier Torah” that chronologically predates and conceptually comes before the Torah of the Sinaitic revelation.

One of Donnolo’s main exegetical missions is to rectify Sefer Yetzirah’s melothesia and reconcile the text with the classic tradition, with the principles of Hippocratic-Galenic medicine and Ptolemaic astrology, at same time not questioning its authority and especially its sacred character. Dealing with elements and forms that God variously combined and assembled to bring forth the patterns of materiality through the beriah, Sefer Yetzirah, explains Donnolo. must be read distinguishing between relationship and domain, the interconnection between micro and macrocosmic elements and the power each one of them exert on the sublunar world.

Once again, Donnolo does not intervene in the text of Sefer Yetzirah, which he reproduces with only a few minor additions. Instead, he offers right next to it a completely reformulated version of the subject. In paragraph 44, for example, the correspondences between the planets and the days of the week do not follow the scheme of traditional astrology, where the sun corresponds to Sunday, the Moon to Monday, and so on. Donnolo reproduces it in full, but proceeds immediately to correct it:

With bet were formed Saturn, the Sabbath, the mouth, as well as life and death. With gimel were created Jupiter, Sunday, the right eye, as well as peace and war … Even though Saturn, the Sabbath, the mouth, as well as life and death were formed with the letter bet, Saturn does not govern life or the mouth but only the Sabbath … Even though Jupiter, Sunday, the right eye, well-being and calamity were created with the letter gimel, Jupiter governs only Thursday…[1]

Mancuso, Shabbtai Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni, p. 317.

By the same token, Donnolo reformulates all the relationships between the organs and their function in the human body that as outlined in Sefer Yetzirah did not correspond to the Hippocratic-Galenic medical tradition. The liver, for example, which Hippocrates identified as the source of blood, appointed to enable man to see and hear, appears in SY in connection only to sight and blindness, while hearing is attributed to the bile, without any further specification. Donnolo reformulates the entire set of relationships, allotting to each part of the body the function that is normally ascribed to it in Hippocratic-Galenic physiology: “Even though the liver, sight and blindness were formed with he, the liver governs sight, hearing, and mercy, since blood is generated by the liver”.

From commentary to texts and ms. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Hebr. 763, ff. 3r-7r.

This method of interpretation has important consequences in the transmission and reception of the text. As previously mentioned, the physical continuity and the lack of clear boundary marks between the text and its commentary, both intertwined on similar same linguistic fabrics, might easily led to confusion in the transmission of the text. From this point of view a very telling example comes from the exegetical works of the Haside Ashkenaz (lit. “The Pious of Ashkenaz”), the medieval Pietist movement of the Rhein region, allegedly established in the 12-13th century by Jews coming from the south of Italy, and more specifically from Apulia. In Eleazar of Worms’ commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, Donnolo’s interpolations collide and eventually melt with the text of Sefer Yetzirah, that in so doing appears in a much bigger shape. What happened in Elezar of Worms’ commentary is not an isolated case. In the census of Sefer Hakhmoni’s manuscript tradition we came across several manuscripts – admittedly mostly Kabbalistic collectanea – where text of Sefer Yetzirah incorporates many of the exegetical interpolations by Donnolo. These manuscripts – mostly Kabbalistic collectanea – can be found throughout the genealogical tree or stemma codicum, from the 13th-14th century (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana – ms. Plut. 44.16), through the 15th century (London – British Library – Reg. 16 A.X), to the 16th-17th centuries (New York, Jewish Theological Seminary of America ms. 1903 and ms. 1640; ms. Add. 6515 of Cambridge University Library), thus covering a considerable portion of the stemma space.

I think that there is very little no doubt that what we have in the Paris manuscript, on folios 3r and 7r belong to this group of witnesses where the text of Sefer Yetzirah incorporates various portion of Donnolo’s commentary. I don’t see enough textual and codicological evidence, however, at least for the time being, to position the manuscript in a hypothetical stemma codicum, but I also think that there is no doubt that the section on Sefer Yetzirah is a derivative text from Donnolo’s commentary. There are several textual elements supporting this hypothesis, from numerous variant readings to longer passages, mostly dealing with the reason why of natural phenomena, human physiology, and the micro-macrocosmic relations. I don’t think this is the place and especially time to deal with tiny and complicated variant readings and to see why all they seem to stem from come from Donnolo’s commentary, so I’ll be focusing here on one of the long textual sections, more specifically the commentary on paragraph 14, where Sefer Yetzirah says:

Four, fire from water. How? He engraved and carved out the throne of glory, the Ophanim and the Seraphim, the holy living creatures, the ministering angels and the entire host on high. From the [following] three He established his abode: from air [ruah], water and fire, as it is written: He makes the winds [ruhot] His messengers, fiery flames His servants [Ps. 104:4].

Mancuso, Shabbtai Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni, p. 292.

Donnolo explains the ratio of fire derivation from water with a textual interpolation, whose phrasing is elegant, almost poetical, probably in attempt to stick to Sefer Yetzirah‘s style, but undoubtedly not as straightforward and scientifically informed as in the first part of Sefer Hakhmoni, the commentary on Genesis 1:26:

After God, with His wondrous power, had suspended those waters in the air of the space of the world, from the radiant brightness of His immeasurably great and awesome light, His brightness radiated and shone from within the waters. By the force of that brightness that radiated out of the waters, fire issued, and with that fire.


If the water is heated to a certain temperature – says Donnolo – it can create a “light” from which a comb can occur. But how can this really happen? Where do get proof of such an axiom? Donnnolo had already dealt with the same problem in the commentary on Genesis, where he had explained that while God, whose power is infinite, is able to suspend the water from air, the only way human beings can do that is by means of a “vessel”, that is to say a transparent glass, where waters might get heated so as to light a fire, as a sort of a lens:

Since man does not have any light, brightness or radiance that are comparable to God’s brightness and radiance, he lifts up that glass vessel containing pure water and sets it up facing the sun’s radiance in the heat of summer, holding in his other hand some strands of pure flax, or cotton wool, or the putrescence of forest trees whose name in Greek and Latin is isqah. He then places the strands of flax or the wool or the putrescence called isqah directly opposite albeit at some distance from the glass vessel. Because of the sun’s radiance, which shines onto the glass vessel, the radiant heat of the sun is transmitted from the glass vessel and the water within it. Then the cotton wool, the putrescence or the flax strands become inflamed and burn like fire. This is how one knows how to produce air from breath [ruah], water from air [ruah] and fire from water.

Mancuso, Shabbtai Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni, pp. 275-276.

This perfectly explains the meaning of the “fire from water” of Sefer Yetzirah, providing the reader with an effective example taken from everyday life, something that anybody can experience, easily, personally and directly. The point here is the compiler or scribe of the text of the Paris seems to know Donnolo’s work quite well, and not only his interpretation on Sefer Yetzirah – the third section of Sefer Hakmoni – but also the lengthy analysis of Genesis 1:26.

Clear evidence of a direct derivation from this section of our Paris witness from Donnolo’s work can be found also in the commentary on paragraph 55 of Sefer Yetzirah that says the twelve simple letters of the Hebrew alphabet are attached to the tly, a term normally translated with Dragon but whose semantic gamut can be wide, and from several points of view also quite unclear: This is he, waw, zayin, het, tet, yod, lamed, nun, samekh, ‘ayin, sade, qof, all adhering to the Dragon, the [celestial] sphere and the heart.

Tly is a very complex and controversial term in Donnolo’s cosmology, as it might be understood and referred to the terrestrial axis – the imaginary line crossing the earth northern and southern pole, or the homonymous constellations – to the so-called lunar nodes (not coincidentally also called the “head and tail of the Dragon”) which are the two points where the Moon’s orbital path crosses the ecliptic of the earth, as well as, last but certainly not least, to a sort of super powerful celestial creature exerting power over all the stars and constellations and responsible for the retro-motion of the planets, but especially to extraordinary phenomena like lunars and especially more rare solar eclipses. In Donnolo astrological and human physiology’s scheme, just as the tly governs all over the celestial bodies, so the spinal bone controls all the organs of the human body, every muscle and bone that allow, as the tly with starts and planets, for all types of movement, forward and backward, regular and irregular of the human body.

So, what is the tly of Sefer Yetzirah? Is it enough to say, as the text seems to suggest, that tly is just something around which everything moves, a sort of physical barycentre, especially since Donnolo had clearly explained that the tly is something by far more complex than a celestial body, something actually and potentially taking to a superimposition of astrological-astronomical and mystical meanings? Probably not, and I think this is the reason why the compiler of the text of the Paris manuscript quotes almost verbatim from Donnolo’s commentary on the tly/Dragon, too complex and complicated an explanation to be summarised and be reported in an abridged version.


Defining the position of a manuscript is not an easy task but what we gathered from this very general and superficial analysis of the Paris manuscript, I think gives us enough evidence to establish a direct correspondence between folios 3r-7r and Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni. The compiler of the text – not necessarily the same as the scribe of the Paris manuscript! – clearly knows Donnolo’s commentary on Sefer Yetzirah but also his interpretation of Genesis 1.26; this posits the manuscript close to a group of witnesses that in our survey for the critical text of Sefer Hakhmoni 3 Mancuso, Shabbtai Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni, p. 123. The Paris manuscript might derive from “g”, a witness now lost but supposedly produced around the 11th century from which several manuscript dating between the late 13th and mid-16th century were produced. seem to have originated from a common source, probably around the 11th-12th century text, I dare to suggest in Italy in coincidence with the Jewish migrations to Rhein lands.

Sefer Yetzirah
Sefer Yetzirah Title page of an edition of the Sefer Yetzirah published in Mantua in 1562. The Sefer Yetzirah (Hebrew: ספר יצירה “Book of Creation”

between the 4th century and the 8th century. The Book of Creation ( Sefer Yetzirah ), the oldest written text of Kabbalah attributed to the Patriarch Abraham

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