Jewish texts from Late Antiquity, as well as culturally affiliated sources, contain three different traditions about the creation of the world from alphabetic letters. This observation, which contradicts the common assumption that the myth of creation from letters stems from the holiness of the Jewish language, calls for comparative study. A structural approach to the letter as a founding ontological element is corroborated by the ancient Greek word stoicheion (στoιχειoν), which refers to both physical foundations and alphabetic letters. To analyze this attitude to the letter in the ancient world, I draw on the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, which addresses the question of the letter in the framework of human discourse. I use Lacan's concepts to describe and illuminate the inherent connection between letters and the very foundations of the world.
The Babylonian Talmud contains a tale about the creation of an artificial calf by two sages who dealt with hilkhot yetzirah, or laws of formation (b. Sanhedrin 65b). Already in the eleventh century CE the phrase “Laws of Formation” was being used to refer to the short, enigmatic, and influential treatise Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation), which depicts the creation of the world by means of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The connection between hilkhot yetzirah and Sefer Yetzirah is of great consequence in determining the period in which the latter was edited, as well as its reception history.