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A Language of Letters: Inside the Hebrew Alef Bet

by Rabbi Shlomo Chein

  

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Unique Language

Biblical Hebrew, also known as "Lashon Kodesh" (The Holy Tongue) is a unique language. It is the only language whose letters communicate meaning independent of the words they form.

In most languages letters don't have independent value. They don’t communicate any meaning. A letter is a symbol that indicates a sound (much like a musical note) and is only valuable when paired with other letters to form a word. Even then, it is the word that communicates meaning, not the letters.

In English, for example, the letters E-A-R of "ear" have no intrinsic meaning. They mean nothing when they stand alone, and still mean nothing when they stand together. There is nothing about ear, the word or the thing it describes, that is connected to the shape or name of the letters E, A or R. Similarly, no one will say that an "era" is somehow connected to an "ear" simply because they share the same letters.

Letters simply don't speak for themselves. They must be grouped together before the newly formed words can begin to communicate meaning. As the expert on words, Merriam Webster, spells out clearly: "Word: a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use".1

Jewish scholars have... in fact pondered, explored, and revealed, the meaning of each individual Hebrew letter.
The word is thus the smallest unit of independent use. The letter, is only an ingredient in the word. You wouldn't eat plain flour, and you wouldn't spend too much time chewing on the meaning of an individual letter.

Meaningful Letters

But for thousands of years, Jewish scholars have done just that. They in fact pondered, explored, and studied, the meaning of each individual Hebrew letter. Countless writings - from the Kabalistic formulas found in Sefer Yetzirah2 to the simple meaning of each letter’s name (and shape) found in the Talmud3 - make it clear that each Hebrew letter communicates its own meaning, aside from the words it joins to form.

Jewish literature attributes so much meaning to the letters that whole words can be interchanged simply because they share the same letters. For example, the Hebrew word Mishnah (Mem, Shin, Nun, Hey),  and the word for soul, Neshamah (Nun, Shin, Mem, Hey) are seen to be related because of their common letters.4 Letters also belong to "families", and within a single word family letters can be exchanged to disclose another meaning to that word. For example, the first two letters of the word Mitzvah, Mem and Tzadik (of Mem, Tzadik, Vav, Hey), can be replaced with their pairs Yud and Hey respectively.5 This would spell out G-d's name, Yud, Hey, Vav, Hey.

Each letter also contains a numerical value, and words that share the same numerical value can also be related. For example, the word Hateva (nature) has the numerical value of 86, which is the same numerical value as Elokim (one of G-d's names).6

What then is the secret of the Hebrew letters? Why has so much scholarship been dedicated to their understanding? And why do they, unlike any other alphabet, possess independent value?

Let There Be Light

One might say the first clue into the unique quality of the Hebrew letters is in the third verse in the Torah: "And G-d said let there be light".7

The verse does not say "G-d created light"; G-d only said it should be, and the verse concludes that it was. This raises a question: Where was light summoned from? And how did "light" know to be light.

To take a modern example: if Steve Jobs walked into an Apple board room five years ago and said "Let there be an iPod" what would we have?

Nothing.

Not only couldn’t that statement produce an iPod, but it wouldn’t even produce the concept or vision of one. Because a) words don’t produce; they only describe, and b) they only describe things that already are (at least in concept or on paper), and at the time an iPod did not exist. 

Footnotes

  • 1. Emphasis added by editor
  • 2. "Book of Creation", the earliest extant book on Jewish esotericism, ascribed to Abraham - the first Jew.
  • 3. Talmud tractate Shabbat 104a
  • 4. It is thus customary to study Mishnah (more so than other parts of Torah) in honor of the deceased. The strength of the letters is further emphasized in the custom to study a chapter of Mishnah for every Hebrew letter of the deceased’s name. Each chapter of Mishnah should begin with another Hebrew letter from the deceased’s name.
  • 5. Through a system called At Bash, which connects the first letter to the last letter, the second letter to the second to the last letter etc.
  • 6. See http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/275,2024029/Why-is-the-name-Elohim-plural.html
  • 7. Gensis 1:3

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Miscellaneous » Hebrew / Languages » Codes and Numbers
Miscellaneous » Hebrew / Languages » Hebrew

Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Aaron
Brother of Moses. First High Priest of Israel and progenitor of all Kohanim (priests) until this very day. Died in the year 1272 b.c.e.
Mishnah
First written rendition of the Oral Law which G-d spoke to Moses. Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in the 2nd century lest the Oral law be forgotten due to the hardships of the Jewish exiles.
Tzadik
(fem. Tzidkanit; pl. Tzadikim). A saint, or righteous person.
Neshamah
The soul of a Jew. This soul belongs to anyone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted according to the dictates of Jewish Law. The soul is a spark of G-d Himself.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.