Was Sefer Yetzirah Written by a Woman? Jill Hammer

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. Continue reading “Was Sefer Yetzirah Written by a Woman? Jill Hammer”

The Three Mothers: Feminine Elements and the Early Kabbalah by Jill Hammer

For over ten years, I’ve been teaching a work of early Jewish mysticism known as Sefer Yetzirah, or the Book of Creation.  There are widely differing opinions on the book’s origin and dating, but many scholars date it to the sixth century.  Its core concept can be described simply: the Divine used the Hebrew letters as metaphysical channels to create the different aspects of reality: the directions, the elements, the planets, the months of the year, and so forth.  Each letter is a channel by which God creates a unique form or entity, and meditating on the letters provides us with a connection to divine creative power. In its discussion of the letters, Sefer Yetzirah shows a strong connection to feminine imagery, and thus helps the later kabbalah develop its own link to the feminine.

Sefer Yetzirah shows influences from Aristotle to Gnosticism, and is often viewed as a work of Jewish philosophy.  However, it is also a work of meditation, giving the reader instruction on how to focus and connect to the divine. Scholars such as Richard Hayman and Marla Segol have noted that the book’s structure and content connect it to magical literature: for example, the book has a deep concern with “sealing” the space of the world: letters of the Divine Name are used to seal the six directions of the universe.  In a similar way, ceremonial magicians of the ancient world used sealing ritual, including the incantation bowls that were buried in the corners of a home to keep out evil forces.  The book, like much ceremonial magic of the region, also discusses the elements.  However, Sefer Yetzirah has a three-element system rather than a four or five-element system.  The three formative elements are air, water, and fire.

Continue reading “The Three Mothers: Feminine Elements and the Early Kabbalah by Jill Hammer”

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