I remember when I was coming closer to Yiddishkeit (i.e. following in accordance with the laws of Judaism and really becoming aware of what being Jewish is all about). I obtained a beautiful book written in English. “The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet” by Michael Munk. It is all about the Hebrew letters. Based upon the Gemara Shabbat 104a, it discusses at length the wisdom behind the letters, their meaning, and the reasons behind their shapes. That Gemara in Shabbat is absolutely fascinating! It’s not supposed to be read at just face value!
MYSTERIES OF THE HEBREW ALPHABET
The Baal HaTanya – Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) discusses in his work Tanya (Shaar HaYichud Ve’HaEmunah Chapters 11-12) the mysteries of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and how they were used to create this world. Obviously he is speaking from a very high mystical level. He is by no means speaking about the physicality of the actual letter we see. However, be that as it may – we live in a physical world. Since that is the case, the only way we can have any inkling into the spiritual make-up is to use some sort of physical reality.
It is much like trying to speak about God’s attributes (His being angry, kind, merciful, jealous etc.) Likewise speaking about God taking the Israelites out of Egypt with an outstretched arm. The prophets speak similarly about seeing God in certain manifestations which seem to make out as though He were physical. All these things are of course anthropomorphisms. God has no arm or any physical likeness. He is Infinite. He is constant. In short – He is.
He cannot one minute be angry and another minute be merciful. He does not change. All descriptions are only here for our benefit – so that we can understand Him and Creation through physical eyes and through a physical world.
Back to the Alter Rebbe speaking about the mysteries of the Hebrew letters. He describes how the letters look the way they do because the Divine energy invested in them causes them to take on the appearance they have. Within each letter is a potential of energy causing a particular force in creation – making things come about as they do.
OF CROWNS AND SHAPES
The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches in Chagigah, “For what reason does the letter ‘Beit‘ have two thorn-like protrusions (as it appears in the script used to write STa”M (Sefer Torah, Tefillin, Mezuzot) – one on its top (pointing upwards) and the other (on its top but) pointing behind it? This is because they say to the Beit, “Who created you?” and it (the Beit) shows them with its thorn-like protrusion pointing upwards (indicating that God created it.) “And what is His name?” and it shows them with its thorn-like protrusion pointing behind it towards the Aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet [In Hebrew, words are read from right to left]) – meaning to say, His name is One (the numerical value of the letter Aleph / the Alufo of the world [the Chief of the world] – The English word “aloof” meaning to be above everyone is in fact this letter – the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – being the letter that is above all the other letters). For this reason, the letter Beit appears written as it does.
Aleph–Beit – learn wisdom. Gimmel Dalet – do kindness to the poor. Why is the foot of the Gimmel extended towards the Dalet? Because it is fitting for the benevolent to run after the poor. And why is the roof of the Dalet stretched out towards the Gimmel? Because the poor must make himself available to the wealthy (so that he can give to him!) And why is the face of the Dalet turned away from the Gimmel? Because he (the wealthy man) must give to him in secret – lest he be ashamed of him! (Shabbat 104a).
NAMING THE ANIMALS OF THE WORLD
When Adam named the animals on the day he was created, he did not make up some combination of letters of gobbledygook (much like a word such as “chair” has no reality – save for the combination of letters being associated with the thing we sit on.) Rather, he saw the actual soul of the force of the animal he was naming, and the combination of (spiritual force) letters that made the animal with all its appearance and characteristics. The eagle (nesher – נשר) would be called that because inside its very being, the letters nun (נ), shin (ש) and reish (ר) exist. The nun – the first letter being the dominant energy and force; the shin – a slightly less powerful force – when combined with the nun – making something. Thereafter the reish – a lesser force for the eagle but necessary to turn it into the creature that it is!
Shin (ש) – stands for Sheker – שקר (falsehood), and Tav (ת) stands for emeT – truth. Why are the letters SheKeR (shin, kuf, reish – the 21st, 19th and 20th letters of the alphabet) close to each other while those of EMeT (אמת) the 1st, the middle – 13th, and last 22nd letter) far apart? Because falsehood is frequent, truth is rare. Why does falsehood stand on one foot (all three letters shin, kuf and reish have only one leg) whereas truth stands on a firm base (aleph, mem and tav all have two legs / strong base)? Because truth can stand, whereas falsehood cannot.
The Zohar speaks at length about how each of the letters of the Aleph Beit approached God asking for Him to create the world with it! The Zohar describes that each letter had its reasons as to why it should be the first letter starting Creation, but that God rejected them – save for the Beit (ב). The Beit would be chosen to begin the Torah, “Beresihit” (בראשית)- “In the Beginning.” It would be this letter – with its unique thorn-like protrusions pointing upwards and backwards to the Aleph – indicating its humility in acknowledging its Creator, that would stand it first in line to be deserving of creating the world.
ABRA CADABRA – SIM SALA BIM!
The letters create. Abra Cadabra – those words recited by the magician at the time he performs his magic are really the Aramaic words for, “I will create as I speak,” (Hebrew: Bara (ברא)- creating (the first three letters of the first word of the Torah), Dibur (דבור)- speaking.) Just like physical objects contain within them Atoms which contain electrons, neurons and protons (and more) which the eye cannot see, so too does everything in creation consist of letters – though we cannot see them…
God used the letters to create the world. He took these letters and placed them inside the Torah – the very Torah scroll we learn from daily. Inside those letters are the very powers of all creation, changing life as they are written, as they are read.
This is the work of the Sofer. He brings holiness into the world as he writes. When the reader reads the words, he causes changes within the world – though it cannot be seen with physical eyes. The Sofer invests the holiness into the letters. The reader causes the holiness to emanate outwards with his voice. People hear the message, are changed by its teachings, becoming better, kinder and greater in everything they do. They influence the world this way, and in turn bring about a world filled with Godliness.
I did not know this as I read and enjoyed the book all about the holiness of the letters. The years have taught me the beauty of the letters. Through learning further, I realised that learning about the art of writing these letters would be something I would get much satisfaction from. I would also be able to express myself through the writing. Clearly, the Sofer is not just an artist. He is a scholar. He must learn thousands of laws – to write each letter.
When Moshe (Moses) went up into heaven, he saw that God was writing tiny crowns upon each letter. He asked God what the crowns were all about. God answered, saying that one day a man would come into this world – Rabbi Akiva would be his name. God told him that Rabbi Akiva would come to learn out and teach thousands upon thousands of laws – just based upon those crowns.
This is the beauty of the Hebrew letters. This is the power and force behind the energy each letter contains – each nuance, each stroke, each crown. It is the duty of the Sofer to invest the holiness for all who come to read from his writing. That holiness will have its affect on all who use the pieces of parchment to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah.
Please continue to keep up with my story as we go from stage to stage, until we begin to learn the actual laws of writing (God willing).
For those interested in my journey and my current progress, please see my page – Sponsor a Sofer.