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Sa'adiah Gaon's Yetzirah Commentary

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Sa'adiah Gaon's Yetzirah Commentary

Origins: Observations on Saadia Gaon’s Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah.

In 931 CE, Saadia Gaon penned the earliest extant commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah (SY).[1] According to Gershom Scholem, Saadia Gaon’s commentary enjoyed a wide circulation from the 11th century onward.[2] Despite the commentary’s persistence throughout the ages, Saadia’s motives for authoring this commentary are still a matter of debate in academic circles.[3] Some claim that Saadia chose to comment on the text in part due to its apparent antiquity,[4] while others claim that he wrote the commentary to detach the work from its association with magic.[5] In the text of the commentary, Saadia states that though he believes the teachings in SY to be ancient, he also believes that the text was authored in Mishnaic times by Tanaim.[6] Also, in the introduction to his commentary, Saadia comments on the view of creation which he feels is expressed by the author of SY. He compares this theory of creation to that of the Pythagoreans, and what he calls the Torah’s view of creation, (creation ex-nihilo and instantaneously). His ultimate claim is that SY and the Pythagorean theories of creation are “completed” by the opinion of the Torah.[7] It is clear from reading Saadia’s commentary that he had an opinion as to the author of SY and his theory of creation. It is interesting to note that the origin of SY is also a subject of scholarly debate.[8] Perhaps by viewing Saadia’s opinions regarding the origin of SY through the lens of modern scholarship we may glean new insight into his own reasons for writing a commentary to the text.
Though authors of other commentaries on SY written in the late ninth century, such as Dunash ben Tamim, attributed authorship of the text to Abraham,[9] Saadia’s position was decidedly different. Saadia claims that though the teachings contained in SY are ancient, that the text itself was compiled in Mishnaic times. In the end of his introduction to the text, Saadia writes,

We say that the ancients transmitted that this book was authored by Abraham, as it says at the end of the book: "When Abraham understood,

God was revealed to him". But they did not say that (Abraham) established the words of the book in this order. Rather, they only said that he conceived of these subjects in his mind, and that it became clear to him that the numbers and letters were the beginning of things, as we shall explain, and that he taught them to the monotheists who were with him. These (subjects) did not cease to be transmitted orally among our nation, just as the Mishnah was transmitted orally, and just as some of the Bible was transmitted orally for many years, such as the Proverbs of Solomon which were copied by the men of Hezekiah, the king of Judah. At the time when the sages of the nation gathered together and collected the subjects of the Mishnah and clothed them with fixed words of their own, at the same time, or close to it, they did something similar with the subjects of this book. Therefore, some of these verses [i.e. verses dealing with events after the time of Abraham] and this order of matters became included. The place in which this book was composed was the land of Israel, for we find the names of the letters (of the alphabet) according to their language.[10]
In this quote, Saadia clearly expresses his theory as to the authorship of SY. He affirms the well known Midrash that Abraham[11] underwent a period of philosophical exploration, culminating in a realization of the ubiquity of God. Saadia also explains that though the book is attributed to Abraham, and probably based on his teachings, it was not laid down in written form until the time of the Mishnah. He bases this assertion on the similarity of the language of SY to Mishnaic Hebrew. Saadia’s claim that the text was transmitted orally and only redacted after the destruction of the Temple seems logical given that any information of this type that was transmitted orally would have required redaction at such a time of national crisis. In summary, Saadia makes two basic assertions regarding the authorship of SY. 1) He claims that the teachings in SY are ancient and 2) That these teachings were only compiled as SY in the time of the Mishnah when this information was in danger of being lost.
How does Saadia’s theory regarding the authorship of SY compare to those of modern scholarship? First, let us weigh Saadia’s assertion regarding Mishnaic period authorship in light of modern scholarship. As mentioned earlier, the identity of the author of SY has recently been a matter of some debate in academic circles. Gershom Scholem[12] was one of the first scholars to attempt to date the text. Apart from “post-Talmudic additions” Scholem claims that SY was written “between the third and sixth centuries, apparently in Palestine by a devout Jew…”[13] Scholem’s estimation of the date of authorship seems to agree with Saadia’s. However, other more recent scholars have dated the text both earlier, claiming it is a product of early Hellenist Jewry,[14] and later, suggesting that the text is actually a product of the early ninth century.[15]
Among those who date SY to the early ninth century is Tzvi Langermann.[16] He bases his theory on several factors common to SY and other works which some date to this period. The texts which Langermann compares to SY are Baraita di-Shmuel, Mishnat ha-Middot and Yesirat ha-Walad. He provides a very erudite analysis of common factors of these three texts. However, he freely admits that Baraita di-Shmuel “is the only one of the texts that can be dated with some confidence…”[17] Interestingly, the common factors of these texts on which he bases his analysis do not in themselves preclude a third or fourth century dating. The factors which he claims are common to these three texts are: “They are structured in the style of the Mishnah…They contain Hebrew neologisms or borrowing from other languages—most notably from Greek...They incorporate earlier texts…All four texts are anonymous.”[18] In fact, SY’s style of Hebrew is one of the main factors which Gershom Scholem uses to support his third or fourth century dating. According to Scholem,

The Hebrew style, however, points to an earlier period. Epstein already proved its proximity to the language of the Mishnah, and additions can be made to his linguistic proofs. The book contains no linguistic form which may not be ascribed to second- or third- century Hebrew. In addition, a number of links with the doctrine of divine wisdom and with various Gnostic and syncretistic views indicate an earlier period; analogies between Sefer Yezirah and the views of Markos the Gnostic of the school of Valentinus had already be noted by Graetz.[19]

Scholem later suggests that SY’s similarity to Greek sources suggest “neo-Pythagorean and Stoic influences.”[20] Thus, it is apparent that Scholem had a similar position to Saadia regarding the date of SY. They both seem to base their theories on the similarity between the language of SY and that of the Mishnah. In any case, the dating of SY remains a matter of debate.[21] However, Saadia’s assertion that SY may have been penned in Mishnaic times is not baseless. In fact, Jospe remarks that “On both linguistic and substantive grounds, Sa’adia concluded that the book must have been composed in the land of Israel during the Mishnaic period—a conclusion remarkably close to that of modern scholarship.”[22] However, one must wonder, if SY was written in the early ninth century, why Saadia was ignorant of this fact. Perhaps the prevailing opinion during Saadia’s time was that SY was an authoritative ancient text. The idea that perhaps Saadia’s contemporaries viewed SY as a Mishnaic work which preserved ancient teachings gives us a clue as to why Saadia felt that this text was important enough to merit his commentary.[23]
The second part of Saadia’s assertion regarding SY is that the ideas contained therein are extremely old. Though it would be impossible to date the ideas in SY to the biblical Abraham, they do seem to be older than the third or fourth century CE. As discussed earlier, Gershom Scholem notes that “The doctrine of the Sefirot and the language system hint at neo-Pythagorean and Stoic influences.”[24] Libes suggests that the concepts presented in SY, and in particular the idea that Abraham discovered these ideas, were apparent in Philo’s Hellenistic Egypt of the first century.[25] Indeed, similar notions to those of SY regarding the creation of the universe are mentioned in Philo’s account of creation,[26] and in Plato’s dialogue Timeaus, in addition to other early Greek works.[27]The creation account of SY would therefore seem to be drawing on a certain neo-Platonic strain of Hellenist thought.
Perhaps, however, the knowledge contained in SY can be traced back even farther than Second Temple Hellenistic Judaism. There was a long held understanding in the ancient world that Greek science and art were acquired in Egypt. In the introductory conversation to Plato’s Timeaus, Critias relays a story of how Solon went to Egypt and encountered a priest[28] who said to him, “Oh Solon, Solon, you Greeks are all children, and there’s no such thing as an old Greek… You are all young in mind…you have no belief rooted in old tradition and no knowledge hoary with age.” The priest then continues by explaining the allegorical nature of Greek myths. He discusses the myth of Phaethon “child of the sun.” He says to Solon that this particular myth “is a mythical version of the truth that there is at long intervals a variation in the course of the heavenly bodies…” From this dialogue, we can infer that Plato thought that Egyptians, particularly Egyptian Priests were more knowledgeable than the Greeks. As was mentioned earlier, later in Timeaus, Plato describes a creation story which seems remarkably similar to that of SY.[29] Perhaps Plato is suggesting that this story was influenced by the knowledge of the Egyptian priesthood. Proclus, Herodotus, and Aristotle also find the origins of geometry and mathematics in the Egypt, and more specifically in the Egyptian priesthood.[30] Even modern scholars who posit a ninth century dating will admit that many of the ideas in SY exhibit an influence from these Greek thinkers.[31]
Zosimus, an early fourth century Greek alchemist, attributes much of his knowledge to a Jewish alchemist named “Maria the Jewess.” He claims that her alchemical knowledge derived from an ancient tradition of metaphysical knowledge that was transmitted by both Egyptians and Hebrews. [32] Zosimus says, “There are two sciences and two wisdoms: that of the Egyptians and that of the Hebrews. Which latter is rendered more sound by divine justice. The science and the wisdom of the best dominate both: they come from ancient centuries.” [33] It is clear from Zosimus’s statement that there was a persistent opinion in Hellenistic Egypt that both Egyptians and Hebrews were privy to an ancient tradition of sacred science. It is understandable, in this context, why Saadia Gaon thought that SY contained ideas that were very ancient. This process of tracing the ideas in SY back to ancient sources could be the subject of its own extensive discussion. It is enough here to note that Saadia’s opinion regarding the ancient origin of SY’s knowledge is not an unreasonable one.[34]

Though modern scholars such as Ben-Shammai reject Saadia’s perception of the alleged antiquity of SY as a motivating factor in his decision to pen his commentary,[35] it is unclear why. Saadia apparently believed that the book was written in Mishnaic times, and that its ideas were even older. Though many modern scholars reject the notion of Mishnaic period authorship in favor of a ninth century dating, Saadia legitimately felt that SY was an ancient work that deserved his attention. Perhaps scholars discount the idea that Saadia was motivated to write a commentary for this reason because they themselves reject the text’s ancient origin. I believe, however, that SY’s alleged antiquity was indeed a motivating factor for Saadia.

Were there other motivating factors for Saadia to write the commentary apart from the book’s purported antiquity? Ben-Shammai claims that Saadia’s goal in authoring a commentary to SY was “to detach the work from mythical, mystical, or magical elements which had possibly been attached to it by earlier commentators.”[36] However, this argument seems untenable, as it is based in part on Ben-Shammai’s reading of an ambiguous comment in Saadia’s commentary.[37] Saadia says, “from here a few people have learned to use amulets…”[38] Though one could interpret this statement to mean that Saadia was making a polemic against the use of amulets, one could also read this as a statement by Saadia that SY can be used for magical purposes.[39] In any case, it is apparent that Ben-Shammai’s contention that Saadia wished to explicate SY as a philosophical or scientific text[40] is probably correct given Saadia’s tendency to interpret texts scientifically.[41] This however, still does not offer a compelling explanation as to why Saadia chose to pen a commentary specifically about SY.[42]

According to Jospe, another possible reason for Saadia’s commentary on SY is “because of the singular philosophic importance of its subject matter.”[43] Perhaps we may gain more insight into this question by looking at Saadia’s opinion regarding the cosmogony which he attributed to the author of SY. Saadia Gaon sees this view of creation as one of the most valid Jewish theories that have been attained through contemplation, though it is ultimately incomplete.[44] In the introduction to his commentary, Saadia puts forth nine unique methods of explaining the creation of the universe, including the theory of SY (the eighth theory).[45] Though Saadia does not attribute them to specific thinkers, Kafih attempts to do so in his notes. Saadia shows the potential validity of the first eight methods from a Jewish perspective,[46] however, he ultimately illustrates their flaws, and accepts the last of the nine methods. These nine cosmogonies are: 1) There was no beginning; 2) The universe was created with tiny particles; 3) The creation should not be contemplated as it is beyond human understanding; 4) The universe was created out of water; 5) The universe was created with air; 6) The universe was created with fire; 7) The universe was fashioned through numbers alone (attributed by Kafih to the Pythagoreans)[47]; 8) The universe was created through numbers and letters in air (which Saadia attributes to the author of SY); 9) God created the universe ex-nihilo and bavat ahat (all at once). The ninth theory he attributes to “the Torah”.

As mentioned earlier, though Saadia rejects all of these theories but the ninth one, he shows how Jews might argue that each theory is correct. He creates a kind of continuum between these nine theories, such that there is a certain parallel evident between the ninth theory and the first theory, and that each theory holds a progressively more sophisticated truth about creation. Whereas the first theory says that the universe is eternal, the ninth theory is the opposite view—creation ex-nihilo at one specific moment in time.

Saadia holds that though the eighth view is a valid Jewish view, and partially correct,[48] the ninth view, however, is “the most favorable.”[49] In reaching[50] the ninth theory, Saadia partially accepts the seventh theory (Pythagorean) and the eighth theory (that of the author of SY). In Saadia’s words,

... The seventh method is set forth by one who posits a creation, but imagines that all creatures were created by numbers. This is because through numbers, essences and parts are separated from each other. Geometry and forms are based on number, because all essential objects necessarily have a kind of form. Here, the form came a level before the object itself. But if he says that the shape of the letters preceded their formation, then this theory posits an essential material…We maintain that the number, in potentiality, has prefigured the numbered object; that the form has preceded the formed thing; the figure, the figured thing; geometry, the geometrical body; and composition, the thing composed---all in potentiality and not in actuality. But if this method posits that numbers came first…this is wrong for two reasons: First, the theory implies that the Actor and the acted upon were joined by a third thing: action; with the forming agent and the formed object, it names another object: form; and along with the Renewer and the renewed there is another: creation. This reasoning is rejected; Second, composition and geometry and all things similar to them involve, at least two terms, or a number above this.

The eighth system belongs to the one who posits a creation, but attributes the origin of things to numbers and letters. These are the words of the author of this book. He attributes the beginning of the Creator's creation to thirty-two things: the ten numbers and twenty-two letters. He does not say, however, that they are abstract and separate. He only says that God created the air and has established the thirty-two things in it. The numbers, according to him, belong to the air, which is composed of separate particles. When the air current passes these straight and curved pathways [letters and numbers], it forms shapes. We find this theory to be correct, but it needs to be added to, and I will explain it after this. The same applies to the letters. When their creator appointed them to the air, they were cleaved, and figures of different forms were created according to the power of each particular letter...

Do our rabbis not say something similar with regard to the portion about standing at Mt. Sinai? It is said, "And all the people saw the voices," [Exodus 20, 15]. The rabbis said, how it was possible to see sounds? They explained that the Sage brought a strong and bright fire down upon the mountain, as it is said: "Because God descended upon it in fire," [Exodus 19, 18]. Then He surrounded it with a black cloud, "and the mountain burned with fire to the heart [lev] of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and fog," [Deuteronomy 4, 11...] He created the burning voice in the fire; the voice came from fire and its form appeared in the cloud according to the impetus from the sound's movement in the air... We see that when someone speaks on a cold day, the letters cleave the air and produce forms according to their straight or bent path. In this way, the author of this book says that the numbers and letters are the beginning of things, that is to say, with the air, as we have just explained.

The ninth method, the most favorable method, of which the seventh and eighth methods are a part is that of the Torah. The discussion of this topic is initiated in the beginning of the account of creation. This is that the Wise One created instantaneously the fire, air, water, and dust and everything that is in them, all of their contents and all of their forms. As it is said, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1)…As the sages explained in relation to this, when Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were arguing [Hagigah 12:1], one said that heaven was created first and the other earth, while the view of the majority and of the sages was that they were both created at the same time.[51]

It is clear from this excerpt that Saadia gives credence to theories seven and eight, though he ultimately rejects them. Saadia does not specifically attribute method seven to the Pythagoreans. However, Kafih points out that Aristotle provides a parallel critique of the Pythagorean notion of creation through numbers in his Metaphysics. Saadia’s essential point here is that any creation theory which is not the one of the Torah is flawed because it posits more than one object existing alongside God at the time of creation. Saadia posits that the only rational explanation for creation is the idea which he attributes to Genesis One, that creation was performed ex-nihilo and simultaneously. Also, he does not agree with the third theory, which posits that we should not contemplate the creation because it is too difficult for humans to understand. Instead, he says that we may posit how the Creator fashioned the universe, but that any scientific investigation of the first principles is precluded by the fact that God created all of the components of creation out of nothing, and at the same time. Though the universe may said to be created out of numbers (theory seven) or numbers and letters in air (theory eight), God created numbers and letters and air out of nothing, and all in one instant.

Saadia mentions the story from Hagigah regarding the fight between the houses of Hillel and Shammai over whether the heaven or the earth was created first, and how the matter was finally resolved by those who maintained that they were both created instantaneously. Saadia is equating theories seven and eight with the argument between Hillel and Shammai. If one maintains that the numbers were created first, and another maintains that numbers and letters in air were created first there is a logical problem--one might conclude that there are two essences to the universe, or in effect, more than one God. This seems to be the essential point Saadia is making in recounting these nine theories of creation. Though the ancient science of numbers and letters is ancient, and numbers and letters are the basic components of reality, God created them both simultaneously, and out of nothing.

It is clear that the cosmogony of SY, though accepted as partially true by Saadia, is precluded by creation ex-nihilo and bavat ahat. The progression of theories, which Saadia critiques, leads us through a philosophical exploration of primary principles,[52] concluding with Saadia’s opinion of the underlying truth—God was alone in creating the universe. According to Henry Malter,

The author of the Sefer Yesirah, he [Saadia] asserts, did not mean to say that the numbers and letters pre-existed as separate entities, out of which the world was created, but only that they constitutes an important factor in the process of the world’s formation, as the underlying principles of order and symmetry in all nature.[53]

One may postulate from this examination that Saadia was motivated not only by his perception of the antiquity of SY, but also by a perception of the importance of SY’s cosmogony. Apparently, he viewed SY’s theory regarding creation as philosophically and scientifically important, and therefore felt a need to respond to the text with a commentary.

One last statement which Saadia makes on SY may provide us with a clue as to why Saadia presents the cosmogonies of SY and the Pythagoreans as being resolved by creation ex-nihilo and simultaneously. In the end of the commentary, when Abraham is mentioned, Saadia says that “Abraham lived among the heretics [al-kufar; ha-kofrim].”[54] It has been suggested by modern scholarship that when Saadia uses the word kofrim, he is arguing specifically against Gnostics.[55] Perhaps in this commentary as well, Saadia is also referring to Gnostics. If this is the case, this commentary could be another polemic against Gnostic thought.[56] This idea would also explain why Saadia partially affirms both the Pythagorean and Yetzirotic views of creation, but only on the condition that they are both subsumed by the cosmogony of “the Torah”. Saadia may have introduced us to the theory of SY in this way in order to show us that its cosmogony, while a valid and ancient Jewish theory on creation does not support Gnosticism. The only way that the claim of Gnosticism can be argued against in light of SY’s theory is to assert that though numbers and letters in air are fundamental building blocks of the universe, they are not another God. We can, therefore, and indeed should,[57] philosophically plumb the depths of creation, according to Saadia, but we cannot explore beyond numbers and letters in air, for beyond those building blocks lie the one God who created all the elements of creation out of nothing, and in one instant. No matter how great the scientific knowledge of humanity, there will always be a level which we may never go beyond—the one God who created everything in one instant.

Through this exploration of Saadia’s opinions regarding the author of SY we have seen several possible motives for his commentary. First, Saadia was compelled to write on SY because he perceived the antiquity of the text; Second, Saadia treated the cosmogony of SY as second only in importance to his own view—that of creation ex-nihilo and bavat ahat; And finally, perhaps he wished to explicate how though SY may be perceived as Gnostic, it is actually a valid Jewish source. Though the author of SY claimed that the universe was created with numbers and letters in air, he was not saying that these components preceded God’s creation of the world ex-nihilo and bavat ahat. Perhaps Saadia Gaon was motivated to write a commentary to SY for a combination of all three of these reasons.

[1] Two versions of the commentary are available. The first is Arabic text with an accompanying French translation by Mayer Lambert, Commentaire sur le Sefer Yesira ou Livre de la Creation par le Gaon Saadya de Fayyoum (Bibliotheque de l’Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sciences Philosophiques et Historiques, 85. Paris: E. Bouillon, 1891). The second text of the commentary is accompanied by Hebrew translation. The Hebrew translation is by Joseph Kafih, Sefer Yetzira [Kitab al-Mabadi] im perush ha-gaon rabbenu Saadia (Jerusalem 1972). I will be using the Kafih Hebrew translation in my analysis.

[2] Scholem, Gershom, Kabbalah. (Penguin Books, New York, 1978), p. 28.

[3] See Ben-Shammai, Haggai. “Saadya’s Goal in his Commentary on Sefer Yezira,” in A Straight Path: Studies in Medieval Philosophy and Culture: Essays in Honor of Arthur Hyman. (The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1988) pp., 1-9, and Jospe, Raphael, “Early Philosophical Commentaries on the ‘Sefer Yezirah’; Some Comments,” in REJ 149, 4. (1990), p. 372. Ben- Shammai asserts that Saadia’s goal in writing his commentary was to “detach the work from mythical, mystical, or magical elements which had possibly been attached to it by earlier commentators. His way to achieve this goal was to establish SY as a philosophical work within the framework of Rabbinic Judaism (Ibid. p. 9.)” Jospe says, “Although I agree with Ben-Shammai regarding Sa’adia’s goal, it seems to me that the problem remains…” (Jospe p. 376).” Later Jospe suggests, “The Sefer Yezirah is accordingly important, and merits commentary, not only because of its antiquity and authenticity, and not only because of the importance of its cosmogony, but also because of the practical implications of its theory of creation.” (Ibid. p. 380).

[4] Jospe Ibid., p. 376.

[5] Ben-Shammai, Ibid. p. 9.

[6] Kafih, pp.33-34, 141-142.

[7] Ibid, pp. 31-32.

[8] Though not a comprehensive list, Sefer Yetzirah’s origins have recently been discussed in the following literature: Scholem, Kabbalah., pp. 26-27; Langermann, Tzvi, “On the Beginnings of Hebrew Scientific Literature and on Studying History Through ‘Maqbilot’ (Parallels),” in Aleph 2 (2002), pp. 169-189; Libes, Yehuda, Torat Ha-Yetzirah shel Sefer Yetzirah (Ars Poetica in Sefer Yetsira), (Schocken, Tel-Aviv, 2000); Wasserstrom, Steven, “Further Thoughts on the Origins of Sefer yesira,”Aleph 2 (2002) pp. 201-221; Shulman, David, “Is There an Indian Connection to Sefer Yesira?” Aleph 2 (2002) pp. 191-199.

[9] See Sefer Yetzirah im Perush Dunash b. Tamim, ed. By Menashe Grossberg (London 1970)), p. 26. There Ben Tamim says, “Abraham was the author of this book…”

[10] Kafih, pp. 33-34, (Translation Jospe, p. 375)

[11] Bereshit Rabbah 38:1. For a discussion of this midrash, in SY and Philo see Libes, Ibid, pp. 73-81.

[12] Leo Baeck’s theory in “Zum Sefer Jezira,” in Aus drei Jahrtausenden (Berlin, Schocken, 1938), pp. 382-397 was that SY was written in a Late Antiquity Neoplatonic environment. Scholem responds to this in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, (Schocken Books, New York, 1946), p. 368. Scholem says, “L. Baeck has tried to show that the Book of Creation is a Jewish adaptation of certain basic ideas of Proclus, much as the books of Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite are a Christian one…But his reasoning is not convincing, although his thesis looks fascinating enough. Some very remarkable similarities between the Book of Creation and early Islamic gnosticism have been pointed out by Paul Kraus, Jabir ibn Hayyan vol. II (Cairo 1942) p. 266-268.”

[13] Scholem, Gershom, Kabbalah, p. 27.

[14] See Libes (Ibid.)

[15] In support of this view see Wasserstrom and Langermann (Ibid.) Also see footnote #12 above and the reference to Paul Kraus’s theory of early Islamic gnostic parallels. This theory (ninth century authorship) is discussed by Wasserstrom in “Further Thoughts on the Origins of Sefer Yesira.” (p. 202) There, he says (in contrast to the theory put forth by Libes in Torat ha-Yetzirah shel Sefer Yetzirah of dating SY to the late Second Temple period) that “By contrast, the trend if not consensus of recent introductions to Jewish mysticism is to date Sefer Yesirah considerably later. Johann Maier locates it in the first Islamic century. Joseph Dan is more emphatic on this point…Most glaring is the question why, if the term sefirot was coined during the Second Temple period, its first appearance was delayed until the commentary on SY by Saadia Gaon almost a millennium later.”

[16] Langermann Ibid. (p. 172) says, “As far as dating is concerned, my own reading leads me to concur with the conclusions of Steven Wasserstrom, themselves a confirmation and elaboration of the opinion of Paul Kraus, namely, that SY was written in the early ninth century

[17] Ibid. p. 170.

[18] Ibid. pp. 174-175.

[19] Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 26-7.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Wasserstrom, Langermann and others reject Scholem and Libes’ earlier dating of SY in favor of a ninth century attribution. See the discussion above. Also, see Langermann, pp. 202-206.

[22] Jospe, p. 374.

[23] Ben-Shammai rejects this as one of Saadia’s motives. He says, “Given the vast body of Jewish literature with which Saadya could have dealt, the relatively secondary place of Sefer Yezira within this body, and Saadya’s selectivity in choosing his subjects or texts to comment upon, there probably was a more urgent motive than the fact that Sefer Yezira had been attributed to Abraham the Patriarch, or else the fact, stated by Saadya himself at the beginning of the Commentary, that the problem of ‘the primary element, out of which these visible elements were extracted’ has been the most difficult matter which brought the thinkers’ minds to a halt.” (p. 3) However, if Saadia did in fact believe that the ideas in SY were ancient and collated by Jews in the Mishnaic period, this seems to at least partially explain why Saadia would choose to comment on this book. Jospe (p. 376) says, “Even if, as Sa’adia suggested, it [SY] could only be attributed in its written form to the period of the Mishnah, that would still qualify the Sefer Yezirah as an authentic and authoritative Jewish text, on a par with other early (i.e., tanaitic) midrashim. In their [medieval Jewish philosophers] eyes, since they were rabbinic Jews and not Karaites, it would not have been necessary to attribute the book to Abraham or some other biblical figure, and dating it in the early rabbinic period would have more than sufficed to establish its authenticity and authority, as a religious text worthy of serious attention.”

[24] Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. p. 27.

[25] Libes, pp. 73, 95-110.

[26] See Philo, Vol. 1. Translated by F.H. Colson (William Heinemann Ltd., 1929) pp. 7-40. Philo draws on Pythagorean ideas of the creation of the universe with number and language. In particular, he is drawn to the numbers one through ten, and more specifically four, seven, six and ten. Philo also discusses the numbers four and ten in relation to the qualities of musical harmonies and geometry. These ideas discussed by Philo are related to Pythagorean thought in general and their method of portraying the numbers one through ten by the figure called the tetractys (See Greek Mathematical Works Vol. I: Thales to Euclid, trans. By Ivor Thomas, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, pp. 87, 91.) This symbol apparently had a mystical meaning to the Pythagoreans. Lucian in Auction of Souls 4 (Ibid., p. 91) says, “Pythagoras. Do you see? What you think is four is ten, a perfect triangle and our oath.”

[27] Plato, Timeaus and Critias, translation by Desmond Lee (Penguin Books, New York, 1965), pp. 42-84.

[28] Timeaus (Ibid.) p. 35.

[29] Ibid, pp. 42-84.

[30] Greek Mathematical Works I, pp. 144-5. “The Egyptian origin of geometry is taught by Herodotus, ii. 109 [volume 2 of Greek Mathematical Works] where it asserted that Sesostris (Ramses II, c. 1300 B.C.) divided the land among the Egyptians…In this he saw the origin of geometry, and this story may be the source of Proclus’s account…Aristotle also finds the origin of mathematics among the Egyptians, but in the existence of a leisured class of priests, not in a practical need…”

[31] It is interesting to note that Wasserstrom admits that SY may have been influenced by Proclan ideas however, he says, “What Proclan elements are discoverable may be due, I would argue, to the reemergence of Proclus in the period under discussion here [ninth century CE].” (Wasserstom, p. 205)

[32] Patai, Raphael. The Jewish Alchemists, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994), p. 52.

[33] Ibid.

[34] One last interesting point is that Saadia interprets the teli in chapter four of SY (Kefah p. 60) to be the constellation Draco. According to Saadia this is the place where the orbits of the galgalim of the sun and the constellations meet. He attributes this word to a quote from Job 26:13. Though the origin of the term teli is also a matter of debate among scholars (see Wasserstrom p. 217), the significance attributed to the constellation Draco may be ancient. According to astronomers, the top star of this constellation was the pole star around the year 4000 BCE. Thus the appearance of Draco in SY indicates that perhaps the ideas in the text are in fact of ancient origin. Interestingly in his poem Keter Malchut (#12), thought to be influenced by SY as well, Ibn Gvirol equates the teli with the constellation Draco.

[35] Ben-Shammai, p. 3.

[36] Ibid. p. 9.

[37] Kafih pp. 126-7.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Contrast Saadia’s statement mentioned above regarding amulets with his statement on (Kafih) p. 131 where he discusses “the first amulet makers…” It is clear from his statement on p. 131, that Saadia recognized the relationship between SY and the writing of amulets. It is likely that Saadia’s understanding was that SY can be used for magic, as many Tanaim were said to have performed magic. Most representative of this is Yochanan b. Zakkai who was said to have studied “astronomy and geometry…the language of the demons, the whisper of the palms, the language of the ministering angels and the great matter and the small matter (Baba Bathra 134a). Also see Sanhedrin 65b where it says that “Rabbah created a man, and sent him to R. Zera. R. Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: ‘Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.’ R. Hanina and R. Oshaia spent every Sabbath eve in studying the ‘Book of Creation’, by means of which they created a third-grown calf and ate it.” (Translation Soncino) Perhaps we may infer from this that though Saadia believed SY could be used to do magic, that perhaps it should not be.

[40] Ben-Shammai p. 9.

[41] Ibn Ezra, in his Sefer Ha-Yashar, claims that Saadia was mistaken in his emphasis on science in his commentaries. See Jacobs, Louis, Jewish Biblical Exegesis, (New York, 1973) p. 9.

[42] Jospe (pp. 373-4) says, “Granted, then, that Sa’adia Ga’on wished to establish the Sefer Yezirah as a philosophical text worthy of consideration…we must still ask our original question: why did such a mystical and non-philosophic work as the Sefer Yetzirah command the attention of so many of the early Jewish philosophers?”

[43] Jospe, p. 377.

[44] Ibid. p. 378. Saadia places the theory of SY eighth in his progression of nine cosmogonies which he analyses in the introduction to his book. Though the ninth theory of creation (ex-nihilo and simultaneously) is ultimately the one he affirms (Kafih pp. 31-2), the theory of SY is also partially affirmed by Saadia (pp. 30-1).

[45] Kafih, pp. 19-34. In Sefer Emunot ve-Deot, Saadia similarly discusses a list of 12 creation theories, which do not always match those recounted in SY. Also, these two lists of creation theories appear to be in the reverse order (see Malter, Henry, Saadia Gaon: His Life and Works, (New York, 1929), pp. 203-4.)

[46] E.g.- Regarding the third method, the one which prohibits investigation of creation, Saadia says that this method was purported by “many of the sages of Israel.” Saadia even shows in his explication of the first theory (that the world is eternal) how some may argue that this is true based on Ecclesiastes 1:4.

[47] Kafih (p. 29) notes that “Aristotle in his book Metaphysics (book 1, 8:18) also rejects this theory of the Pythagoreans.”

[48] Jospe (p. 376) says, “The third view, as we saw, is a Jewish view which is clearly false. The eighth view, that of the Sefer Yezirah, is an authentic Jewish view that is only partially correct.” Ben-Shammai says (p. 6) “The author of SY is thus made a philosopher. Eventually Saadya makes it explicit when he says ‘on behalf of’ the Sages who made the final edition of SY, that Abraham reached conclusions which constitute the doctrines of SY by means of rational reasoning.” See Kafih, pp. 30-32.

[49] Kafih, p. 31.

[50] According to Jospe (p. 378), “Just as the seventh view (Pythagoras) led naturally and logically to the eighth (that of the Sefer Yezirah), so the eighth culminates in the ninth, which Sa’adia regards to be the true opinion, and that of the Torah (in other words, his own view), according to which everything was created ex-nihilo and simultaneously.”

[51] Kafih, pp. 29-31.

[52] Ben-Shammai (p. 4) points out that Saadia’s title of this commentary, Kitab al-Mabadi, instead of being translated as “Book of Beginnings,” should be translated, “Book of Primary Principles.”

[53] From Henry Malter, Saadia Gaon: His Life and Works (New York, 1929), pp. 203-4. Also quoted in Jospe, p. 379.

[54] Kafih, p. 141.

[55] This is suggested by Zucker in “ציונים ומלואים ל"שאלות" של חיוי הבלכי,” from Studies in Medieval Culture #11, 1977 (a transcript of his address at the 1972 AAJR conference). He makes this claim based on Saadia’s polemic against Hiwi al-Balkhi, the well known ninth century Gnostic, which was in a fragment of a genizah manuscript. See: Saadia's polemic against Hiwi al-Balkhi : A fragment edited from a Genizah MS. by Israel Davidson, New York : Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1915.

[56] Interestingly, Scholem (in Kabbalah, p. 27) notes parallels between SY and Gnostic literature. This would support the idea that Saadia desired to comment on SY in part as a polemic against Jewish Gnosticism.

[57] Saadia also rejects the third method which asserts that we should not investigate the creation as it is beyond human understanding.

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