Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Avraham Avinu as author of Sefer Yetzira

Summary: Whether hanefesh asher asu beCharan is indicative of this. Did Avraham create golems? Did he create cattle?

Post: Sefer Yetzirah is a kabbalistic, or thaumaturgical work which was available to the Amoraim. It has been ascribed to Rabbi Akiva and to Avraham Avinu. To briefly cite Jewish Encyclopedia:
and R. Akiba in particular was credited with a knowledge of the mystic significance of the letters (Bacher, "Ag. Tan." i. 347-348). When, therefore, the rationalistic "Sefer Yeẓirah" was developed from the thaumaturgical work of the same name, which was known only to a few, the authorship was ascribed to Akiba. The closing mishnah (vi. 15), however, expressly declares that Abraham was the recipient of the divine revelation of mystic lore; so that the oldest geonim (see Hai Gaon in the responsum cited in "Kerem Ḥemed," viii. 57) and such philosophers as Saadia, Donnolo, and Judah ha-Levi ("Cuzari," iv. 25) never doubted that Abraham was the author of the book.
(See also here, for example.) An example of Amoraim using Sefer Yetzirah, to create a calf, may be found in Sanhedrin 65b:
Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could [by living a life of absolute purity] be creators, for it is written, But your iniquities have distinguished between etc.22  Rabbah created a man,23  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',24  by means of which they created a third-grown calf25  and ate it.
When, in parashat Lech Lecha, Avram and Sarai move from Charan, we read:
5. And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.ה. וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן אָחִיו וְאֶת כָּל רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:
What does this phrase, הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ, mean? Could it mean that they made golems, or made human beings, and invested them with souls? Well, while this is a plausible midrashic reading, Bereishit Rabba, which is midrash from the Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael, explicitly states otherwise:

ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן אמר רבי אלעזר בן זימרא:אם מתכנסין כל באי העולם לברוא אפילו יתוש אחד, אינן יכולין לזרוק בו נשמה, ואת אמר, ואת הנפש אשר עשו?! אלא, אלו הגרים שגיירו.

ואם כן שגיירו למה אמר עשו? 
אלא ללמדך, שכל מי שהוא מקרב את העובד כוכבים ומגיירו כאילו בראו.

ויאמר אשר עשה, למה נאמר אשר עשו? 
אמר רב הונא:אברהם היה מגייר את האנשים, ושרה מגיירת את הנשים. 

Since all the inhabitants of the world, come together, could not invest even a created mosquito with a soul, it must mean something else. And that something else means conversion to monotheism. This still is derash, IMHO. עשו means something other than create in the sense of creating holy souls aligned to Hakadosh Baruch Hu; or that nefesh means people and converting is like creating. Rather, it is more along the lines of קנו, which itself sometimes means create.

Indeed, Ibn Ezra says precisely this, that it means that they produces as slaves born in the household, or else acquired. Yet gives the derash (seemingly) as an alternative peshat:
ואת הנפש -עבדים ילידי בית.
או עשו - כמו קנו.
וכן: עשה לי את החיל הזה.

ויש אומרים:
הנפשות שהורם האמת לעבוד את השם. 

Rashi as well gives both explanations, though clearly designating acquired as the peshat, leaving the conversion as derash:

and the souls they had acquired in Haran: whom he had brought under the wings of the Shechinah. Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women, and Scripture ascribes to them [a merit] as if they had made them (Gen. Rabbah 39:14). (Hence, the expression אִשֶׁר עָשׂוּ, lit. that they made.) The simple meaning of the verse is: the slaves and maidservants that they had acquired for themselves, as in [the verse] (below 31:1): He acquired (עָשָׂה) all this wealth [an expression of acquisition]; (Num. 24:18): and Israel acquires an expression of acquiring and gathering.אשר עשו בחרן: שהכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה, אברהם מגייר את האנשים, ושרה מגיירת הנשים, ומעלה עליהם הכתוב כאלו עשאום. ופשוטו של מקרא עבדים ושפחות שקנו להם, כמו (שם לא א) עשה את כל הכבוד הזה, (במדבר כד יח) וישראל עושה חיל, לשון קונה וכונס:

Regardless, it seems as if no one entertains that these are golems, or people, he is creating.

Rabbi Menachem Tzioni explains it in a different manner:

I've explained it in this way in the past, as a way of demonstrating how midrash is often hyper-literal. Thus, we have a tradition that Avraham Avinu composed Sefer Yetzirah. Thus, this nefesh was indeed literally created by him.

This would seem to go against the explicit midrash. But perhaps we can say that this reading was at the very least in the mind of the midrashic author, Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra, for otherwise, why reject it explicitly?

I am going to take this derash and run with it. People have difficulty with this pasuk, in parashat Vayera:

8. And he took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed [them] before them, and he was standing over them under the tree, and they ate.ח. וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּתֵּן לִפְנֵיהֶם וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ וַיֹּאכֵלוּ:

This is not a problem of basar bechalav. After all, who says Avraham literally kept Taryag Mitzvot? And who says that this was not zeh achar zeh? It wasn't even cooked together, such that there would be an issur deOrayta! And why should putting it on the table together be a problem when the guests, at least, never accepted the taryag Mitzvot. And if the milk and cream was that of camels (see here), then there is no problem of basar bechalav. Yet a midrash uses this to fault the angels!

And Ibn Caspi is quite opposed to the idea that this could have been basar beChalav. Forfend!

Forfend that the angels ate meat with milk. (The footnote on the page suggests that milk came before the meat, or that he placed both on the table and they chose whichever they chose.) I am not sure why this perturbs Ibn Caspi. But perhaps if he regards basar beChalav to have a deep mystical, philosophical reason, then it would be the height of impropriety to have the malachav consuming this.

And now, for my suggestion. (Mind you, I am having fun here.) Maybe the cow was not a real cow. To cite the pasuk in Vayera again:

8. And he took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed [them] before them, and he was standing over them under the tree, and they ate.ח. וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּתֵּן לִפְנֵיהֶם וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ וַיֹּאכֵלוּ:

Note the words  וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה. This couldn't be the same as the calf he gave to Yishmael in the previous pasuk, where it states וַיִּקַּח בֶּן בָּקָר רַךְ וָטוֹב וַיִּתֵּן אֶל הַנַּעַר וַיְמַהֵר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ. For that implies action by Yishmael, the naar. Therefore, he gave a calf  to Yishmael, but Yishmael must have somehow messed it up. So Avraham hurried to make it. And in this pasuk, it is the calf  which Avraham himself made that he places before them.

Now, what is  וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה? Recall that Avraham composed Sefer Yetzirah. And we see in the gemara in Sanhedrin, above, that Amoraim used this work to make a calf for themselves for Shabbos. Maybe such a calf is not considered fleishig and may be eaten with milk! (Compare Meshech Chochma who suggests that the milk was from a Ben Pakua, and thus permitted to be consumed with meat.)


Frohike said...

"But perhaps if he regards basar beChalav to have a deep mystical, philosophical reason, then it would be the height of impropriety to have the malachav consuming this."

Surely it would EITHER be a mystical reason OR a philosophical reason. The two systems of thought are mutually exclusive.

yaak said...

Cute, Josh. Very cute.

Alternatively, you could be right - Yishmael messed it up - because he was also in pain from his recent Berit Mila, and did it haphazardly (וימהר). And really וימהר לעשות אתו goes on Yishmael. Whereas Avraham was Medakdeik in Mitzvot despite his pain (as we see from Rashi on the Parsha), Yishmael was apparently not - even though, as Rashi says, the point of Yishmael doing it was לחנכו במצות.

But being that it uses the word לעשות, I still like your Pshat better.

joshwaxman said...


"Surely it would EITHER..."
maybe. certainly they are different things, but i do think that there is considerable overlap between the two. especially where Jewish philosophy concerned itself with theological matters. and Shadal is convinced that kabbalah is simply an adaptation of Platonic philosophy, using Jewish terms and texts.

thanks. :)


Anonymous said...

Malbim says this explicitly

joshwaxman said...

nice! baruch shekivanti! i'll try to check it out, and post an update with a direct quote from the Malbim.


joshwaxman said...

here is a direct link to that Malbim, btw.


Jr said...

In "On The Kabbala And It's Symbolism" pg 171, Scholem specifically analyzes the relationship btw this medrash rabba and the kabbalistic interpretation.

He writes, at one point, that If the drasha in the medrash is an old one, the question posed " are we to believe that Abraham could make souls" might very well be directed against the esoteric circles.


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