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The Hebrew Alphabet
By Yerachmiel Askotzky
The Hebrew alphabet is unlike any other alphabet. It is not a haphazard collection of
consonants whose order was determined by convention but that could have been and could still be changed
without loss of content. The individual letters, their names, graphic forms, gematria (numerical equivalents),
sounds and respective positions are divinely ordained. The physical manifestation of the letters is G-d's translating
his divine wisdom and power into physical reality. G-d did not create letters then imbue them
with divine wisdom and power. Rather, the letters are the consequence of his transfer of spirituality into physical
form. It is no wonder then that we learn many laws and philosophy from the letters. It should also not be
surprising that the universe was created with the letters, meaning, with the divine wisdom and powers
inherent in the letters.
A consequence of this, the Jewish law requires every letter in a Torah scroll, tefillin or mezuzah to be written
perfectly. No part of a letter may be omitted or distorted nor may its individual integrity be compromised by
contact with another letter. Every word must be spelled correctly; a missing, extra or transposed letter invalidates
the entire scroll. Any violation changes or severs the spiritual "current" that G-d intended to be created through
the reading of the Torah scroll, wearing of the tefillin and affixing of the mezuzah.
The Talmudic tractate Sabbath is the source of the classic passages on the Hebrew alphabet. The sages tell us how a group of
obviously wise youngsters expounded upon the symbolism of the letters. Two explanations have direct bearing
on the laws related to writing of the letters in Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot.
The third and fourth letters, "Gimmel and Dalet, stand for gimol dalim, be kind to the poor. Why is the leg of the
Gimmel, meaning a kind man, pulled towards the Dalet meaning a poor man? Because it is the custom of the kind to run after
the poor. Why is the leg of the Dalet stretched back towards the Gimmel? Because the poor should make himself
available to the kind. Why is the Dalet's head turned away from the Gimmel? In order that he can assist him
discreetly so the poor should not feel ashamed before him." From this, we learn how we are to conduct ourselves in regard to helping others.
The second to last Hebrew letter, Shin, represents, sheker, falsehood."
The last Hebrew letter, Tav, represents emet, truth. Why are the three letters which spell sheker positioned next to each other in the Hebrew Alphabet,
while the letters of emet are spread out? (The first letter of emet is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the
middle letter is the center letter and the last letter is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet.) Because falsehood is
common and truth is uncommon. Why do the three Hebrew letters of
falsehood stand on one leg while the three Hebrew letters of truth are solid as brick? (They have either two legs
or a solid base.) Because truth stands firm while falsehood does not stand firm
Not only does G-d teach us, through the letters, divine moral standards and guides for living but we also learn the
correct way to write the letters. For example, the leg of the Dalet should lean back slightly to the right and the
base of the Shin may not have a thick base. Any such deviation affects the actual status of the scroll and the
spiritual current it was intended to generate.
With the above introduction let's take a deeper look at the first Hebrew letter: Aleph.
The Aleph symbolizes the one and only, eternal, omnipotent G-d. It is the symbol of G-d as the creator and master
of the universe.
Gematria: The numerical value of Aleph is one. This represents the one, unique and indivisible G-d who alone is
timeless and changeless. He is one in two essential ways:
1) There is no other G-d besides him.
2) He is totally unique in all existence.
Though we perceive G-d in many roles: kind, angry, merciful, wise,
judging, etc., these are not different moods or attitudes as they would be in the multifaceted personality of a
human being. Rather all flow from a unified purpose and existence.
Name: Aleph is related to the Hebrew word aluph, which means master, chief or prince.
Form: The graphic form of the Aleph symbolizes the infinite, eternal nature of G-d. It consists of three parts: The
upper and lower arms are Yuds, the tenth Hebrew letter of the alphabet,
connected in the middle by a diagonal Vav, the sixth Hebrew letter. The numerical value of the
three letters that compose the Aleph is twenty six. (10+10+6=26) This equals the value of the four letters of the
divine name, Y-H-V-H, (10+5+6+5=26) which is the name that represents G-d as the eternal, for its four letter
are those that form the words: He was, He is and He will be.
Sound: Aleph is the only silent letter because it represents the unrevealed, infinite spiritual. The Aleph also
represents the channel of the spiritual, heaven, to the physical, earth, which is
symbolized by the second Hebrew letter, Beit. This is one of the reasons why it's the first letter.
The form of the Aleph also symbolizes this. The upper Yud represents the spiritual world and the lower Yud, the
material world. The Vav in between is the conduit that links the two together. The Vav is also considered like a
ladder connecting man's physical and spiritual inclinations, enabling him to raise himself spiritually. This
connection of the two worlds, to G-dliness, is established by man fulfilling G-d's commandments, within the
physical realm, through material actions such as wearing tefillin, taking the 4 species on Succot, Tabernacles, and
eating kosher food.
In fact, the Hebrew word for ladder is sulam. The numerical value of sulam equals 130,
which is the same as the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word Sinai, the Mount on which the Torah was
given. The Vav, which represents a "ladder", alludes to the fact that the means to attain spirituality is through the
intense study and the fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah. Through fulfillment of G-d's will, these
physical acts become infused with holiness, emblazoned with a "spiritual fire". Of course, the greater one's
recognition of G-d, bond with G-d, love for him and careful fulfillment of his commandments, the higher he raises
himself on the spiritual ladder, the closer to G-d he becomes.
The letters of the word Aleph read backwards is peleh, which means an inexplicable wonder. Is there any
greater wonder than the infinite spiritual being channeled into and manifested within the finite physical?
With this introduction to the sacredness and divinity of the Hebrew Alphabet we can begin to understand the
holiness of the scribe's task and his obligation to strictly adhere to the laws governing the writing of the sacred
scrolls. In my next article I will discuss the writing of a Torah scroll and tefillin.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Askotzky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and is a certified scribe and examiner. For more information, visit
www.stam.net or call
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Based on Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael Munk, published by
Artscroll. All quotes reprinted with permission.
from the March 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine