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In Ancient Jewish Scriptures

In the Mishna & Talmud

The rabbis ascribed special sanctity to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Psalmist's declaration that "By the word of God were the heavens made" (Ps. 33:6) was taken to indicate the power of the letters, which form the "Word" of God. Bezalel succeeded in the construction of the tabernacle because he "knew how to combine the letters by which the heavens and earth were created" (Ber. 55a). These divine letters cannot be destroyed, and even when the material tablets were broken by Moses, the letters flew upward (Pes. 87b).

Similarly when R. Ḥananiah b. Teradyon was wrapped in the Scroll of the Law and burnt by the Romans, he exclaimed, "the parchment is burning but the letters are soaring on high" (Av. Zar. 18a). The alphabet played a role in the creation of the world. Bet was chosen as the proper letter with which to begin the creation since it is also the initial letter of the word berakhah ("blessing"). Furthermore, the letter bet had other desirable features. "Just as the bet is closed on all sides and open in front, so we have no right to inquire what is below, what is above, what is back, but only from the day that the world was created and thereafter" (Gen. R. 1:10). The claim of the letter alef was also acted upon favorably. It was finally placed at the beginning of the Ten Commandments. Another reason given for creation with a bet was to "teach that there are two worlds since bet has the numerical value of two" (ibid.). The Talmud related that this world was created with the letter he and the future world with the letter yod, both letters forming one of the names of God (Men. 29b).

Every letter in the alphabet is granted symbolic meaning by the Talmud. Thus, for example, "alef bet means to learn wisdom (alef binah) while gimmel dalet means to show kindness to the poor (gemal dallim)" (Shab. 104a). Even the way the letters are written has significance. R. Ashi declares, "I have observed that scribes who are most particular add a vertical stroke to the roof of the letter ḥet." This stroke signifies that "He lives in the height of the world" since the ḥet is the initial letter of the word Ḥai, "He lives." The stroke above the letter indicates that the abode of the living God is on high. The addition of a letter from God's name to a person's name is indicative of Divine guidance and protection. Thus God placed a letter from his name, the vav, on Cain's forehead (Gen. 4:15; PdRE 21). Abram's name was changed to Abraham by the addition of the letter he (Gen. 17:5; Gen. R. 39:11). The yod which the Lord took from Sarai when her name was changed to Sarah complained to the Almighty that, "Because I am the smallest of all letters, Thou hast withdrawn me from the name of the righteous woman." God finally appeased the yod by utilizing it when Hoshea's name was changed to Joshua by addition of this letter (Gen. 17:15; Num. 13:16; Gen. R. 47:1).

The total number of letters in the alphabet, 22, is also given significance. The wicked King Ahab merited royalty for 22 years "because he honored the Torah which was given in 22 letters," by refusing to surrender it to Ben-Hadad, king of Aram (Sanh. 102b). Great significance is given to those psalms which are alphabetically arranged (in 119 and 145), as are the first four chapters of Lamentations. Of the latter, R. Johanan declares that they were smitten by this alphabetical dirge, "because they violated the Torah, which was given by means of the alphabet" (Sanh. 103b). Halakhic exegesis also derives important laws from superfluous or missing letters in the bible and even from the flourishes and other graphic peculiarities.

In Jewish Mysticism

The early mystical literature of the Jews, composed soon after the Talmud was concluded, dealt extensively with the symbolism and secret meaning of the alphabet. Apart from the special mystical alphabets such as the Otiyyot de-Rabbi Akiva (c. 700) and the alphabet of Ben Sira (Alphabetum Siracidis, c. 700), attention was devoted to the secret meaning of the letters. The most noteworthy works are the Sefer Yeẓirah , the Heikhalot writings, the Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, the Sefer Temunah, Shi'ur Komah, Ḥarba de-Moshe, Sefer ha-Yashar, the Book of Razi'el and the Book of Bahir. The important role that mystical symbolism of letters plays in these writings is already partly evident from their alphabetical structure and shape. The belief that the alphabet has mystical significance is based on the idea that the 22 letters of the alphabet are spiritual essences which came into being as emanations from God. The Talmud had already stated that God created heaven and earth with the help of the alphabet (Ber. 55a), and the idea that the 22 letters as spiritual states were the basis of creation recurs throughout mystical literature (Sefer Yeẓirah, 2:2; 5:22; Zohar, 1:3; 2:152; Zohar Ḥadash, Ruth; Moses Cordovero, Shi'ur Komah, 8; Yal. Reub., Gen., and elsewhere).

The Letters As Spiritual and Material Structures

The letters, as written in the Torah, are reflections of the heavenly letters. Their relation to each other is like that of the male and female which attain fulfillment only in union (Zohar, 2:228; cf. 3:220). This characteristic is also expressed in the shape of the letters: alef is male, bet female, gimmel is again male, dalet female, and so forth (Zohar Ḥadash, Ruth). The form of the letters is not accidental; they are "spiritual essences whose external shape corresponds to their internal essence." The spiritual counterpart of each letter derives from the individual Sefirot ; thus, for instance, alef comes from Keter ("Crown"), bet from Ḥokhmah ("Wisdom"), gimmel from Binah ("understanding") and so on (M. Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim, 27:2; Sefer ha-Temunah, the end of alef). When a person pronounces or uses letters of the alphabet, it awakens the spiritual essence contained in them and "sacred forms" come into being which rise and unite with their origins, the heavenly letters, "which are the sources of emanation"; there they become subtle and incorporeal, similar to what they were before they took on a definite material shape in man's mouth (Cordovero, op. cit., 27:2; 9:3; 15:3; idem, Shi'ur Komah, 53; idem, Elimah (Ms.), 132; Sefer ha-Kanah , 24; Dov Baer of Mezhirech , Or ha-Emet, 12; idem, Maggid Devarav le-Ya'akov, 28). The whole doctrine of the spiritual, supernatural character of the letters seems to have originated under the influence of the Pythagorean theory of numbers.

The Letters of the Torah and Prayers

The letters "are the apparel of the Torah, woven from all the colors of the light, white, red, green, and black" (foreword to Tikkunei Zohar). An individual section of the Torah, composed of verses, is as "the soul for its physical members [the verses]" and in the same manner as the words draw their vitality from the verses so do the letters from the words: the one is the soul of the other and the apparel of the one is that of the other (Pardes Rimmonim, 21:5). This explains the particular sanctity of the scroll of the Torah and of the act of writing it (ibid., 27:2; 20:1). The writing of a letter constitutes the material stage, its pronunciation, the spiritual stage, and its transition from oral pronunciation to thought is the third stage. Hence the special sanctity of prayer performed with purity and fervor, for it transforms the letters of the prayer into spiritual substances which rise, toward their heavenly origins (Cordovero, Shi'ur Komah, 19).

The Sequence of the Alphabet

Alef as the first letter encompasses all the others: "Alef is their primary source and they all draw from it." The remaining letters are organized in three groups, each consisting of seven letters: bet, gimmel, dalet, he, vav, zayin, ḥet "are the mystery of the rule of Grace," tet, yod, kaf, lamed, mem, nun, samekh "that of the rule of Mercy," and ayin, pe, ẓaddik, kof, resh, shin, tav "that of the rule of Strict Justice" (Pardes Rimmonim, 27:21).

Final Letters

The five final letters, which in the Talmud were stated to have been instituted by the Prophets (Shab. 104a), according to the Zohar were originally preserved by God, together with the "primordial light," for a better future; only Adam knew them. After the Fall they were hidden from him too, until Abraham through inspiration came to know them. Abraham bestowed the knowledge of the final letters on Isaac, he, on Jacob, and the latter, on Joseph. After Joseph's death, during the period of servitude in Egypt, they were eventually forgotten. The knowledge was regained when Israel received the Torah "and apprehended them in their essence," but after the worship of the golden calf they were lost to the people. Only Moses, Joshua, and the 70 elders still knew them. They brought the knowledge with them to Ereẓ Israel and there they were again revealed in the Song of Songs to the whole people and added to the other 22 letters of the alphabet (Zohar Ḥadash, Ruth). When Moses ascended Mount Sinai he found God designing crowns for the individual letters (Shab. 89a). These are the crown-shaped flourishes which point to the ten Sefirot (Sefer ha-Peli'ah, 73) and represent the life-principle (nefesh) of the letters (Vital, Eẓ Ḥayyim, 1:5, 9). The vowels are the neshamah ("soul") and ru'aḥ ("spirit") of the letters, which emanated from the Sefirah Ḥokhmah ("Wisdom"; Pardes Rimmonim, 9:5; 28:6; Tikkunei ha-Zohar, 5). The cantillation accents evolved from the Sefirah Keter ("Crown") (otherwise ibid., = Tikkunei Zohar Pardes Rimmonim 29:5). Each ẓeruf ("combination of letters") has its special purpose, and is based on a particular mystical idea. The doctrine of the combination of letters is already found in talmudic literature. In esoteric literature this doctrine is further elaborated, first in Sefer Yeẓirah and subsequently in numerous commentaries on it, in particular that of Shabbetai Donnolo (tenth century). Through the linking together of letters it is possible "to call into existence new creatures" and the amora Rava tried to create a man in this manner (Pardes Rimmonim, 8:4; David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra , Magen David, introduction; Rashi to Sanh. 65b). The doctrine of combination of letters regarding the Divine name was derived from the doctrine of ẓeruf (Abraham Abulafia in his letter to R. Solomon; cf. Sefer ha-Bahir). The entire kabbalistic literature abounds in speculations about the alphabet, but the following writings deal particularly with this subject: Sefer Barukh she-Amar (1804); N. Bachrach, Emek ha-Melekh (1648), chapter Sha'ashu'ei ha-Melekh; Elijah ha-Kohen, Midrash Talpiyyot (1736), S.V. Otiyyot; Isaac ha-Levi, Otiyyot de-Rabbi Yiẓḥak (1801).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Judah Leib b. Joseph Ozer, Einei Ari (1900); S.A. Horodezky, Kivshono shel Olam (1950), 29–47; E. Lipiner, Geshikhte fun a Fargetert Ksav (1956); idem, Oysyes Dertseylen… (1941).