This year, I published a book called Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah (available from Ben Yehuda Press, benyehudapress.com). Sefer Yetzirah, or the Book of Creation, is an ancient Jewish mystical work (written in approximately the sixth century CE, though scholars offer dates from as early as the 1st century CE to as late as the 9th century). This brief, cryptic, poetic book describes the process by which God creates the universe. God engraves letters, which are also the elements and fundamental forms of being, into the cosmos. These engraved letters act like energetic channels between the Creator and the Creation, allowing creative intention to flow from the One to the Many. The book instructs the mystical practitioner to develop awareness of this creative process and seek to embody it, thus allowing energy to flow back from the Many to the One.
This flowing between One and Many is called retzo vashov, running and returning—the constant ebb and flow between unity and multiplicity. Sefer Yetzirah says of the elements that “God’s word in them is running and returning.” This means that the divine intention moves within creation, and the elements shape themselves in response to this intention. In Sefer Yetzirah, as in most Jewish texts, the Creator takes a male pronoun. However, the elements—water, air, and fire, since the book has a three-element system rather than the more common four elements— all have female pronouns. These three elements, often identified with the Hebrew letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin, are sometimes known within the text of the book as the three mothers. And, God’s breath or spirit, the ruach elohim chayyim or breath of the living God, which gives rise to all the other elements, also take female pronouns. Not only that, but Wisdom, the feminine entity who is the sum total of all the engraved pathways between God and the world, is also feminine. We can say with certainty that the text gives the feminine unusual primacy, compared with other Jewish texts of the time. We also don’t see in this text any of the misogyny that is common in ancient texts of this time period.
And, Sefer Yetzirah also has links to magical literature. In one scene within the book, God seals the six directions of the universe using various combinations of the letters of God’s name. This language of sealing in order to keep out any chaotic forces is common in incantation bowls, a magical artifact used in this same time period as a way of protecting homes from demons, disease, and other harm. Magical practice would have been common among both men and women, as we see in the Talmud, which tells many stories of both men and women doing magic.
When I teach about this, I am invariably asked if Sefer Yetzirah was written by a woman. I’d love to answer yes to this. And, it’s not clear to me we could say that with any certainty, given the age of the text. It would be unusual for a woman to have the level of education needed to write such a text. But what I do say, in response to that question, is that Sefer Yetzirah was produced by a community. Scholars have determined the book has multiple authors and was edited to include multiple texts. To me, this suggests a group of practitioners working on similar ideas over time. And, the community that produced this book seems comfortable with feminine elemental forces and magical terms, in a way that might possibly suggest a thought-culture shared with actual women. To me, it seems plausible that the community of Jews that produced Sefer Yetzirah included women, and that women contributed in some way to the ideas contained in the book. I can’t prove this, of course, but it is what I suspect. In my book, I wrote: “It is not impossible, given the magical culture the book seems to arise from, that women contributed to the culture out of which the book was written, or even to the content itself…” (p. xxxiii)
Sefer Yetzirah is a book I love, because of its earth-based and embodied perspective on the world, because of its gorgeous poetry, and because of its thrilling elemental characters, the three mothers Aleph, Mem, and Shin—whom I have written about before on this site. That remains true regardless of who wrote it. But it is pleasant to be able to speculate, however tenuously, that some facets of this book might have had their origin not only with men, but with women (and/or others of multiple genders). It makes the book feel friendly to me as a feminist mystic. I hope others will find Sefer Yetzirah to be an inspiring resource from the ancient world for feminist theologies of the present.
Hammer, Jill. Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah (Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2020). https://benyehudapress.com/books/return-to-the-place/
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the author ofThe Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook (with Taya Shere) andThe Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. Her forthcoming book is titledReturn to the Place: The Magic, Meditation., and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. She is a poet, scholar, ritualist, dreamworker, midrashist, and essayist.