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The body in the Sefer Yetzirah

The Representation of the Human Body in the Sefer Yetzirah

Jean Baumgarten

Presentation by Jean Baumgarten

Conference ” The Sefer Yetisirah

Our presentation will focus on the copy of the Sefer Yetzirah ( The Book of Formation ) – one of the oldest speculative texts in the Jewish mystical tradition – in the Mss Heb. 763 of the Paris BNF (13th century, short version, Fol 1v-7r). The original text does not include any mention of author, nor precise date of writing – It was, without doubt, written in Eretz Israel , between the 2nd century before and the 8th century after the current era – The study of the representation of the human body in the Sefer Yetzirah will allow us to present a general overview of this Jewish mystical cosmogony or cosmography. It aims, in fact, to contain the complexity of the real world, as it appears to us, in the concentrated form of a narration which reveals the divine plan of Creation, describes the apparent and hidden architecture of the universe, its composition, offers an explanation of the birth of the world, and models what manifests itself within the universe. The writer(s) of the Sefer Yetzirah therefore reveals the hidden divine plan of creation, lifting the veil that conceals the divine realities, while masking them with extremely concise esoteric writing, which is not immediately decipherable or identifiable. . The enigmatic aspect of this cosmogenesis, like a rebus or a logogriph, has given rise to a proliferation of interpretations which, of course, shed light on the substance of the text, without for all that an irrefutable truth being able to emerge. This mystical treatise, on the other hand, unfolds according to a logical narrative structure and progression. It develops in successive stages, describes different interconnected orders, composing what Lovejoy called, a chain of being (which could be translated as shalshelet ha-qedusha ) which binds and connects Elohim-Adonai to the human body. All beings and things are part of an interlocking of plans, of a layering of links, arranged in a hierarchical continuum, forming a stratified whole, from God to the smallest atom. A correspondence is thus established – this is a fundamental aspect of many Jewish mystical texts – between the macrocosm and the microcosm.

Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, the anthropomorphic data do not constitute a subordinate element of the treatise, because they constitute the lower level of this vast cosmogonic structure. Somatic descriptions represent, on the contrary, a fundamental dimension, of divine origin, which establishes a relation of place, form and function with the other components of Creation. The text also inserts the body (with the world and the year) among the three main “proofs of the thing (of Creation) or of the divine word (re’ayah le-davar )” and “trustworthy witnesses” (edim ne’emanim ) that stem from the higher will of God and have a direct connection with the Creator.

God is therefore at the top of the cosmological architecture. It is defined, not in relation to theeyn sof (sometimes the infinite being of pure transcendence, sometimes the hidden primordial principle, sometimes the original nothingness), but with reference to the expressions and metaphors contained in the prayer Nishmat, (based on Isaiah (57, 15): Elohim Hayyim, El Shaddai; Rahum ve-hanun (merciful and merciful, Ex. 34, 6); Ram ve-nisa (High and sublime); Shokhen ad (He who resides for eternity); Mi-me’on qadsho (In the dwelling of his holiness, Zac. 2, 17) which refers, in particular, to images and metaphors of the mystical literature of the palaces (Heykhalot ) where God sits in heaven on his divine throne; then Ve-qadosh shemo (And Holy is His name). God is compared to an engineer, a builder – The letters are the building and foundation stones of the universe -, a surveyor, a gardener, as the source and creator of the totality of the world, from three matrices, monads or “elementary particles” which then multiply to infinity: these are the 32 paths (netivot ) of wisdom (hochma ) which correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet plus the 10 numbers, counted things or enumerations (sefirot ), of which we find, among others, a reference in the treatise of the Talmud Hagiga 12a: Rav Zutra said that Rav said: The world was created by ten things or ten attributes (asarah devarim) . The text of the Sefer Yetzirahexplains the same: “His word is in them”: the word of God or the breath of the living God ( Ruah Elohim hayyim ) is in each of its original elements on which the world rests. It is from His breath that Elohim traced, engraved ( haqaq ) or created ( yatsar ), carved ( hatsav ), sealed ( hatam ), spat ( raqaq ), weighed ( shaqal ), permuted ( tsaraf ), replaced ( hemir ) any existing thing. The 22 letters, according to the principle of division starting from the One, are separated into: 3 foundation-letters ( otiot yesod ), ie alef, mem, shin ; 7 double letters ( sheva kefulot ), i.e. beit, gimel, dalet, kaf, resh, tav ; 12 single letters ( yud-beit peshutot ). Creation therefore presupposes a systematic construction, characterized by the passage from the infinite, the unlimited, to the finite and the limited.

The two fragments that open the SY constitute the heart of the text: God, Adonai tsebaot , creates from the original chaos ( tohu va-vohu ) or rather, to use the very terms of the treatise, “makes the there-y-a ( from) nothingness” ( asa yesh me-ayn ). The Creator ( yotser ) proceeds to the formation of the world by a series of acts which consist in dividing, tracing ( haqaq ) (the universe) from three matrix forms ( sefirot ): the letter ( sefer ), the number ( sfar , mispar ) and speech or speech ( sippur ). The letter and the number only have meaning and usefulness when situated in a structured whole (statement, equation or geometric space). We can, to link the letter, the number and the text, draw a parallel with the scribes ( soferim ) who, according to the Masora, the cantilation and vocalization of the Bible, copy and count the verses of the Torah. This triad ( Sefer, sfar, sippur ) will be taken up again, to take a musical metaphor, in the form of a harmonic development when the text speaks of voice, breath and saying ( qol ve-ruah ve-dibbur ). The formation and deployment of the universe therefore stems from this tripartition of original forms, which contain the totality of possibilities, between a linguistic dimension (the letters and their infinite combination), a mathematical dimension (the number, combined according to the laws of the progression of arithmetic and geometric series) and an anthropomorphic dimension (The body as an ordered assembly of organs). All of the phenomena that we observe in reality derive from the measurable amplification of these initial models which maintain relations of external complementarity and internal proportionality between them. The tripartition is found in all the variations of the original entities; linguistics between the sign (morphology), the sound (phonology) and the statement (syntax); numerical (between arithmetic, algebra and geometry); the discourse (between lexicography, semantics and symbolism) and the body (between the organs, the small pulmonary circulation and the large circulation of oxygenated blood, the vital functions, then the passions and the feelings). The divine Name, the letters, the language and the word, the numbers, their infinite combinations in algebra and geometry, therefore constitute the central foci, in which the creative energy is concentrated, and from which the whole of the universe. On the combination of these primary entities depends the genealogy of forms, the “syntax of the universe”, formed of series classified in hierarchical order, subject to movement, rhythm and infinite transformation, according to the rules of derivation, logical progression, of permutations or combinations (tserufim ), substitutions (temurot ) and expansion (hitpashtut ). Each component is a singular occurrence within the global, linguistic, mathematical, geometric, material system of the world, from God, the angels, the planets, the constellations, the signs of the zodiac, the organs of the body and the vital functions.

It has been possible to establish various relationships between these original data of the Sefer Yetzirah and certain cosmogonies of antiquity. The author or authors of the Sefer Yetzirah have visibly combined the ancient Jewish mystical tradition with, among others, certain currents of Greek philosophy. It is, however, extremely difficult to say precisely to what extent our treatise is inspired by non-Jewish philosophical, cosmogonic, esoteric doctrines. This is a vast question, of particular complexity and difficulty, which is based on often unverifiable probabilities and suppositions. I will only touch very briefly on these thematic contiguities. We could cite Plato’s Timaeus , the commentary of Proclus, Plotinus, without forgetting the neo-Pythagoreans, including Philolaos of Cretona in his treatise, On Nature, and Nicomaque of Gerase, in his Introduction to Arithmetic , plus some Gnostics , including Valentin and Marcos. These doctrinal correlations will be evoked, deepened, during this day. So I don’t dwell on it.

Note that the prime numbers specified in the Sefer Yetzira (3, 7, 10, 12) – they potentially contain all the others – are defined as the “receptacles and expansions of the One”. From arithmological combinations and infinite permutations of the 3 foundation letters, the 7 double letters, the 10 sefirot, then the 12 simple letters, we arrive at an infinity of combinations of series and cycles. By thus calculating the number of possible permutations between each of the 22 letters of the alphabet with each of the 21 others, we obtain 462 combinations. This number implying a “return” between each of the letters – which indicates, among other things, the formula rushes and returns ( ratso ve-shuv ) – we end up with 231 connections. On the other hand, each number comes in three different orders (1) arithmetic, in its algebraic dimension (2) geometric, based on the correspondence between the whole number and the dimension in space. The growth or decrease in number is associated with geometric expansion, the spatialization made explicit by the diagonal lines (alkhasonim ), the extremities (ketsavot ), the limit (gvul ), dimensions or depths (omaqim ), the measure (midah ) and the importance of the sphere (galgal ) (3) logic, especially in the chain of discourse, parallel to the infinite forms that the universe takes from the 3 matrix elements.

The organs of the human body are ordered, arranged and function according to the same mathematical principles as those which structure the order of the universe. The human body is only a materialization, an existentialization of the principles of divine algebra. The body is, in fact, composed of 3 basic organs (avarim-yesod ), 10 geometrized parts of the body (beginning / end; top / bottom; east / west; north / south; and the center: “God, faithful king who reigns over all the abode of his holiness, and for the eternity” and 12 orifices that ensure the circulation internal between body parts and relationships external with the other components of the universe, including the planets and the signs of the zodiac.

The complexity of the Sefer Yetzirah lies, on the other hand, in the existence of a succession of ramifications between different series or planes which are described in themselves, without necessarily that the writers have sought to explain their articulation and their interrelation. Let us note, therefore, within this interlocking of subdivisions, of degrees of creation, the distribution between the sefirot . The first four correspond to the transformation of the divine spirit into air, from which water appears and from which fire appears. The other six sefirot correspond to the six dimensions, axes and boundaries ( qetsavot ) of the universe. Same subdivision with regard to letters and speech. The Creator fixed them ( qatsav ) in the mouth ( peh ) in five places of the phonatory apparatus. The text adds the mention of the crowns which adorn, in the manuscripts of holy texts, the letters ( tagin or qosin ) which engender a new series of permutations. They correspond to the air ( avir ), to the temperate ( revayah ), to the phallus ( geviah ), to the separation between the masculine and the feminine and, above all, to a series of antithetical principles: left and right / order and disorder / “ depths of good and depths of evil”. This binary taxonomy, therefore formed of a system of syzygies (antithetical couples), is counterbalanced, balanced, either by a median principle, or in reference to the first cause which ensures the stability of the whole, ie the One God. The binarity is evoked from the beginning of the treaty: Ten numbers, without quiddity, according to the ten fingers of the hands, of which five (hey) are in front of five (hey) . This systematic distribution has repercussions, once again, at the level of the body: the text speaks, in fact, of the good and bad listening of the ear, of the good and bad visions of the eye, of the good and bad words for the language. The opposites, which “hold each other in war” ( omedim ba-milhama ), are always stabilized by a principle of balance, a kind of balance which establishes harmony between the opposites, without which incohesion, disorder would take over. on it and disturb the order of the universe. Which is repeatedly stated in the Sefer Yetzira : And the Covenant of the One (brit ha-yahid) directed in the middle (be-emtsa’). Like the covenant or the word of the tongue (milat ha-lashon) and the covenant of the member (milat ha-ma’or) .

Arrangements and correspondences between the sefirot and the parts of the body (From the Tikkunei ha-Zohar)Sefer Yetsirah

Within these power couples, let us insist on a founding polarity highlighted several times in the treatise: the opposition between the masculine and the feminine. The difference between the sexes and heterosexuality are fundamental principles in the formation, evolution, perpetuation of the universe. Sexual union therefore assumes an important theurgic function, as suggested by the evocation of the semen ( zera ), the phallus ( min ) and the uterus ( rehem ), as well as the importance of the awakening of desire. The centrality of sexuality is metaphorized by two cuts: birth, marked by the section of the umbilical cord, and circumcision, or entry into religious life, both marking the coming into the world and social life. Divine revelation or hypostasis (hitgalut ha-Elohut ) are, therefore, symbolized or metaphorized, like a birth from within the divinity itself, in the form of an expansion (hitpashtut ) intradivine, from an original code, fundamental entities, substances, mediators (sefirot ), between the divine and the human upon which the formation of the totality of the universe depends. A parallel is thus suggested between, on the one hand, the procreation of the human being, from the sperm, sexual union, in utero fertilization, the embryo, the child at birth, and, on the other hand, the stages of the creation of the universe. In reference to the combination between the triliteral root Tav-Lamed-Dalet and the set of vowels in toledet, toladot, toledot , which refer to birth, begetting, filiation, succession of generations, genealogy and history .

If we now refer to the naming of the parts of the human body, we see that it is not without raising difficulties, in particular because of the halachic prohibition of dissection and cadaveric autopsy. It’s hard to tell what kind of creature – human or animal? – corresponds to the classification developed in the Sefer Yetzira . The description of the digestive system ( klei ha-ikul ), however, suggests that it is rather the anatomy of cattle, as described in rabbinical sources on the shehitah (including the Hullin treatise of the Babylonian Talmud ). That said, we see that the body, the ultimate link in the chain of being, occupies an essential place in the overall architecture of the universe. The body, glimpsed as an icon of divine perfection, is, in fact, a vector and a center of reception, of the “descent” of divine emanations – and of the “ascent” of thoughts, prayers and human desires towards the spheres heavenly. The body is a privileged vehicle for the objectification or manifestation of the divine within the material world. It constitutes, moreover, within the system of the world, a bridge ( gesher ) which establishes links with the other components of the universe. This is what the text explains: “All nested, combined, attached to one another” ( kulam aduqim zeh ba-zeh / ve-tsrefan zeh im zeh ). Just as we have seen the importance of the passage (from the letter to the discourse, from the number to the equation and to the geometric figure), we observe similar series or sequences at the somatic level, between the distribution of the organs, the relationships between them, especially in the pulmonary and blood circulation, and the links with the universal rhythms or the order of the cosmos, especially with reference to the cycle of the planets. We thus observe a correspondence between, on the one hand, the sets of letters (3, 7 and 12), the consonant / vowel combination, their numerical value, and, on the other hand, the spatial arrangement of the bodily organs, the sequence of the days of the week and the movements, the rhythms of the celestial spheres. The Sefer Yetzirah thus establishes a correspondence between the mathematical-linguistic foundations of the universe and the somatic and mental structure of the human being. We thus arrive at the equations between the 32 paths of (divine) wisdom and the 32 main bodily organs.

It is certain that the distribution and the role of the regions of the body described in the Sefer Yetzira are similar to those found in various cosmogonies of Antiquity, from China to Babylonia and Egypt, but also in certain considerations developed by certain Greek anatomists, including Herophilus, Erasistratus, and by Greek philosophers of which, first and foremost Aristotle and Plato in the Timaeus . I am, once again, only making a brief allusion, within the Sefer Yetzirah , to possible reverberations of various philosophies of antiquity. Once these possible comparisons have been stated, it is difficult to determine with certainty which non-Jewish sources could have inspired the anatomical system of the Sefer yetsirah and would make it possible to establish precise links with mythological, philosophical and esoteric traditions of Antiquity. These questions would require a presentation in themselves.

Let us remember that, in our treatise, the organs are seen as physical receptacles of divine influxes, just as they are doors ( she’arim ) of access to the divine spheres. We observe similarities between the general configuration of the universe and the body structure: from the spherical head (galgal ), connected to the vault and the celestial spheres, down to the lower parts, notably the ten toes, corresponding to the chain of the ten sefirot and, in reference to the Kabbalah, to the lower sefira , the malchut ; let us mention the importance of vital centers in the center of the body, including the heart; intermediate poles, including sex; a vertical axis, the true axis of the world, formed by the vertebral column (amud ha-shidrah , from the root shadar , “diffuse” in reference to the circulation of divine influxes and emanations) and a series of organs that ensure the cycle of absorption, combustion, digestion, and evacuation. Let us evoke, in the same way, what is called melothesis, that is to say the influence of the stars on the parts of the body and vice versa. The treatise establishes a correspondence between, on the one hand, the celestial worlds, its dimensions and its polarities and, on the other, the bodily architecture separated between the double (eye) and simple (sex) organs, the cardinal points or the main spatial coordinates (top / bottom; left / right) and, for each level or series, a median organ, for the top, the mouth (peh ), for the bottom sex, symbolized, as I specified before, by circumcision. That is, according to another related classification, the ten fingers of the hand and the ten toes, plus two central organs, which correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The navel is not mentioned, but the idea of a central point is metaphorized in the heavens by the divine throne (kisse ha-kavod ) and, on earth, by the foundation stone (even ha-shetiyah ) and by the Temple (Heikhal ha-qadosh ), as the center of the universe and the point of harmony in the world, thus creating a direct relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm. Just as the navel refers, within a descending chain of correspondences, to the umbilical cord, to the fetus and to the physiology of the sexual act and of procreation as they are, among other things, described in medieval treatises of Jewish gynecology and obstetrics, the Generation Book (Sefer ha-Toledet ).

The 2 Mother Letters, Sefer Yetzirah

If we refer to the tripartition that we have sketched, we see that the 3 mother-letters alef, mem, shin corresponding to three letters of divine Name (yud, hey, vav ) to the three elements (water forms the earth, fire the heavens, and the spirit the air), to three times of the year (water gives winter; fire l ‘summer; air temperate shoulder season) and three central organs: the head (rosh ), center of intelligence, corresponding to shin ; the abdomen (beten ) or heart (lev ), center of circulation and vessels, corresponding to mem ; the virile member (geviah ) (sometimes torso, trunk, or solar plexus), as the median organ, which balances the two, corresponding to alef . The three mother-letters would correspond to the unified whole formed by the sacrum ( estem ha-atseh ).

7 double letters
Sefer Yetzirah

The 7 double letters ( kefulot ) correspond to binary substitutions ( temurot ) at spatial extremities ( ketsavot ), including the extremities of the earth (Jeremiah 40, 28) and the four cardinal points (Jeremiah 49, 36), to the 7 planets ( kokhavim ) or firmaments ( raqi’a, reqi’im ), on the seven days of the week. The 7 letters form the 7 cervical vertebrae (shel ha-tsavar ), the 7 orifices (of the head) (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth) or 7 doors of the body (shearim ), thus creating a universal harmony between Saturn/Mouth; Jupiter /right eye; Mars / left eye; Sun / right nostril; Venus / left nostril; Mercury /right ear; Moon / left ear.

The 12 simple letters correspond to the main somatic functions (sight, hearing, smell, conversation, nutrition, and sexual union), to the 12 diagonals (alakhsonim ); in the twelve months of the year (hodashim ) and to the twelve rulers in the soul which correspond to the 12 dorsal vertebrae (shel ha-gav ); to the 12 signs of the zodiac (mazalot ), to the dispositions of the mind. Blood movements and combinations of moods determine a binary system of passions (anger, ataraxia)

The 12 simple letters, Sefer Yet

And to the 12 governing bodies (manhigim ) of the body from the soul: either left and right, or two arms/hands (yadaim ); two legs / feet (reclaim ); two kidneys or two testicles (kulyot ); liver (kaved ); the gallbladder (marah ); the spleen (th’ol ); the crushing stomach / the small intestine (hemses ); stomach / uterus, (kavah ); the paunch / large intestine (qarqevan ). The parts of the body are divided into a subsystem – which could be compared to data specific to Jewish astrology.

The body in the Sefer Yetzirah
Medico-astrological figure: (BNF ms Héb 1881, Fol 264v). Probably from the 14th century. Medical recipes (in Arabic translated into Hebrew by Moses Ben Masliah of Capua). Zodiacal man (correspondence between organs, limbs and signs of the Zodiac (melothesia).
The 12 signs of the Zodiac and the Sefer Yetisrah
Cambridge Psalter, Sefer Yetzirah
Calendar of a psalter,
St John’s College, Cambridge,
MS K.26, fol. 41v
Woodcut from an almanac 
Woodcut from an almanac (1580)
Book of properties of Bartholomew the Englishman
Mrs. French 134
Crazy 48v
Sefer Yetzirah
Book of properties of Bartholomew the Englishman
Mrs. French 134
Crazy 48v

And also to non-Jewish astrology (in particular Manilius and Firmicus): note the two opposite series, but friends (fingers, toes, eyes, ears and heart), either in enemy series, antagonists (tongue, liver and bile), or resurrectors (mehayyim ) (nostrils and spleen), either murderers (mematim ) (two lower orifices and the mouth). Finally, note that the twenty-two letters form a triad compared to three kings or royal powers, relating to the cycle of the year, to the heart, the central organ, and to the dragon ( teli , “the one who suspends”). The Sefer Yetzirah says little about this dragon, which appears to be a pole related to the dragon constellation, the axis mundi around which the world hangs ( talah ). The dragon is also considered as a satanic force, destructive, close to the serpent of Genesis, which exerts its malefic action, outside the divine domain of holiness and introduces destruction and evil into the mechanics of the universe. Some scholars have detected a Gnostic or Iranian influence in it.

Elohim-Adonai , as the absolute first principle, is present in the totality of the world, including in the human body. Even if the demonstration remains succinct and cryptic, the Sefer Yetsirah postulates the isomorphism between the structuring of the human body, the physical world and the sefirot . Any action in the material world, especially through the intermediary of the human body, therefore has the power to strengthen, balance, unify or, on the contrary, weaken the upper world, at the very least to damage the channels between the lower and the top.

Sefer HaZohar
For the homonymous articles, see Zohar. Sefer Ha Zohar The Sepher ha-Zohar (Book of Splendor), also called Zohar (זֹהַר), is the masterpiece of

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