3: Text excerpt, "Sefer Yetzirah," undated, and lyrics and music video, Victoria Hanna, 2015.
Throughout his life, Borges was fascinated by Jewish mysticism and Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, in particular. He discusses kabbalistic concepts—particularly of infinity and eternity—in many of his best-known stories. Yet it’s important to note, in the words of scholar Elliot R. Wolfson, that “Any discussion of Borges and the Kabbalah must begin with the obvious fact that he was not equipped to deal with this material historically or philologically, a point that he often emphasized on his own.” (“Since I don’t know Hebrew,” Borges said, “I wonder if I have any right to study the Kabbalah.”) Borges scholar Evelyn Fishburn called Borges’s use of kabbalistic concepts “creative misreading.”
In contrast to Borges’s lack of knowledge and cultural exposure to kabbalah, musician Victoria Hanna grew up in a religiously observant Jewish household. Hanna uses the text of the Sefer Yetzirah and other kabbalistic writings as lyrics, interpreting them as modern musical compositions.
Suggested Activity: Have students read the excerpt from Sefer Yetzirah and consider how Borges might have been inspired to “creatively misread” it in “The Secret Miracle.” Then have students reread "The Secret Miracle" from page 161 to the end: the depiction of “eternity” when “the physical universe stopped.” Consider how Borges attempts to test a metaphysical paradox—a definition of time that defies physical reality—within the textual laboratory of a short story. In what ways does Borges succeed and fail in conveying eternity within a short story? What does this story about eternity end up teaching us about history?
Now have students read the lyrics (in translation) and watch the music video of Victoria Hanna's "22 Letters," a visual and musical interpretation of the Sefer Yetzirah. In what ways does Hanna embody the text? Does hearing the text of the Sefer Yetzirah sung aloud change your understanding of or relationship to the text?
Borges and Hanna have created two interpretations of the same work. In what ways do their interpretations differ? How are they similar? How might "The Secret Miracle" and Hanna's "22 Letters" be in conversation with each other?
Sources: Sefer Yetzirah [excerpt]. Source sheet compiled by Sadie Gold-Shapiro using sefaria.org, 2020.
"Twenty-two letters," song lyrics, adapted from Sefer Yetzirah and translated by Victoria Hanna, accessed https://lyricstranslate.com/en/22-letters-22-letters.html.
Victoria Hanna, "22 אותיות–ויקטוריה חנה Twenty two (22) letters-Victoria Hanna," September 8, 2018, accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcnxRi0s_DM.