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Alphabet, Hebrew, in Midrash, Talmud, and Kabbalah

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.


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).

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