The Otiyot Yesod or "Foundational Letters" are first described in the early proto-Kabbalistic work, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation). In this work we find, alongside the notion that the world is composed of ten Sefirot, an additional and at times parallel symbolism in which the entire cosmos is said to be created from the 22 consonant/letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The letters and the Sefirot together are spoken of as "the thirty wondrous paths of creation" (Sefer Yetzirah 1:1). According to the author of Sefer Yetzirah it was through the Otiyot Yesod, the Foundational Letters, that God "formed substance out of chaos and brought forth existence from nonexistence" (2:6). Sefer Yetzirah emphatically describes the role of these in the creation of the world:
Twenty-two foundation letters: He engraved them, He carved them, He permuted them, He weighed them, He transformed them, And with them, He depicted all that was formed and all that would be formed (Sefer Yetzirah, A Kaplan trans., p. 100).
Such linguistic mysticism is amply evident in the very early Kabbalistic source, Sefer ha-Bahir, major portions of which are written as an exegetical inquiry into the mystical significance of the Hebrew alphabet.
A mysticism of language is echoed consistently amongst the subsequent Kabbalists and Hasidim. For example, in the Zohar we read:
For when the world was created it was the supernal letters that brought into being all the works of the lower world, literally after their own pattern (Zohar I:159a).
Schneur Zalman of Lyadi proffered a number of linguistic mystical ideas, including (1) that the world is created and sustained by divine speech, (2) that the world's substance is composed of letters in the holy tongue, (3) that the name of an object is its soul, and (4) that the entire Torah is the name of God.
The Otiyot Yesod provide an alternative and complimentary symbolism to that of the Sefirot. According to Scholem, this dual symbolism of Sefirot and letters creates a parallel between creation and revelation. For the Kabbalists these two ideas merge into one another. Creation is revelation and vice versa. Such a view, of course, is implicit even in the biblical tradition, which held that the means of revelation (language) is precisely the vehicle through which God created the world.
What meaning, we might ask, can be provided to this rather startling doctrine? From a philosophical perspective we might say that the world is created and sustained by divine language because it is through such language that the very idea of creation and existence is brought into being. According to the first Lubavitcher Rebber, Schneur Zalman, if God's "letters" were to return to their source it would be as if the heavens and earth and all creation never existed, because their very idea would be non-existent.
Ordinarily when we think of the "end of the world" we imagine the destruction or disappearance of the earth and the heavens and all existing things, but what Schneur Zalman is asking us to consider is the end, or rather the negation, of the very concept of existence itself. Indeed it is this very concept that is so remarkable, i.e., that there should be a "state of affairs" in which there is the very possibility of being or not-being. God's words bring about the very possibility of existence and being as such. It is this that is truly creation yesh min ayin (something from nothing).
The Otiyot Yesod and the kabbalistic philosophy of language are discussed in Symbols of the Kabbalah, Chapter 5, pp. 236-262.
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