Fall 2017 catalog cover

The Penn Press list for fall 2017 includes hardcover releases, first-time paperbacks, and ebook editions intended for scholars, students, and serious general readers worldwide. Click here to explore our forthcoming books, grouped by subject area.

"Sefer Yeṣirah" and Its Contexts
Other Jewish Voices

Tzahi Weiss

248 pages | 6 x 9
Cloth Mar 2018 | ISBN 9780812249903 | Add to cart $59.95s | Outside N. America £50.00
Ebook Mar 2018 | ISBN 9780812294798 | Add to cart $59.95s | £39.00 | About
A volume in the series Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
View table of contents and excerpt

"Tzahi Weiss offers an innovative and daring thesis regarding a central text in the canon of Jewish mysticism and magic. 'Sefer Yeṣirah' and Its Contexts will stimulate important discussions not only about the history of Sefer Yeṣirah in Jewish intellectual history but also about the relationship of Jewish and Christian sources and the boundaries separating and uniting these two traditions."—Elliot Wolfson, University of California, Santa Barbara
Sefer Yeṣirah, or "Book of Formation," is one of the most influential Jewish compositions of late antiquity. First attested to in the tenth century C.E. and attributed by some to the patriarch Abraham himself, Sefer Yeṣirah claims that the world was created by the powers of the decimal number system and the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This short, enigmatic treatise was considered canonical by Jewish philosophers and Kabbalists and has fascinated Western thinkers and writers as diverse as Leibnitz and Borges. Nonetheless, Sefer Yesirah is nearly impossible to contextualize mainly due to its unique style and the fact that it does not refer to, nor is it referenced by, any other source in late antiquity. After a century and a half of modern scholarship, the most fundamental questions regarding its origins remain contested: Who wrote Sefer Yeṣirah? Where and when was it written? What was its "original" version? What is the meaning of this treatise?

In "Sefer Yeṣirah" and Its Contexts, Tzahi Weiss explores anew the history of Sefer Yeṣirah. Through careful scrutiny of the text's evolution, he traces its origins to the seventh century C.E., to Jews who lived far from rabbinic circles and were familiar with the teachings of Syriac Christianity. In addition, he examines the reception of Sefer Yeṣirah by anonymous commentators and laypeople who, as early as the twelfth century C.E., regarded Sefer Yeṣirah as a mystical, mythical, or magical treatise, thus significantly differing from the common rabbinic view of the text in that period as a philosophical and scientific work. Examined against the backdrop of this newly sketched historical context, Sefer Yeṣirah provides a unique and surprising aperture to little-known Jewish intellectual traditions of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages which, despite their distance from the rabbinic canon, played a vital role in the development of medieval Jewish learning and culture.

Tzahi Weiss is Associate Professor of Jewish Thought and Hebrew Literature at the Open University of Israel. He is author of numerous books, including Cutting the Shoots: The Worship of The Shekhinah in the World of Early Kabbalistic Literature.

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