The Hebrew Alphabet: A Mystical Journey

Jewish mystics took Judaism's reverence for the Hebrew language one step further, venerating the Hebrew letters themselves and considering them paths to the Divine.

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This article, the second of two parts, looks at the ways Jewish mystics venerated the Hebrew letters. Jewish mystics considered the Hebrew letters to be a sort of Divine DNA, that when studied could reveal secrets of the Cosmos. Reprinted with permission from The Hebrew Alphabet: A Mystical Journey (Chronicle Books).

From the earliest metaphysical text known as the Sefer Yetzirah ("Book of Formation"), Jewish mystics have extolled the Hebrew alphabet as the man­ifestation of celestial patterns of energy. In a section that has long entranced kabbalistic (mystical) adepts, this ancient treatise vividly declares, "Twenty-two foun­dation letters: He ordained them, He hewed them, He combined them, He weighed them, He interchanged them. And He created with them the whole creation and everything to be created in the future."

mystical hebrew alphabetThe Secrets of the Hebrew Letters

Based on this provocative notion, later Jewish visionaries stressed that mastery of the Hebrew alphabet in all its varied aspects allows the indi­vidual to gain supreme knowledge about the realm of matter. In particular, they regarded the Names of God as powerful devices in the hands of the knowledgeable. The correct permutation and pronunciation of certain Divine Names was believed to grant the ability to cure the dangerously ill, perceive events far away in time and space, and even to create a golem (a humanoid made from clay).

The 13th-century Zohar(Book of Splendor) is filled with refer­ences to the importance of the Hebrew alphabet as a celestial code or blue­print for the cosmos. Interestingly, modern science can supply an analogy to clarify this evocative concept: Just as we now regard the DNA molecule as a carrier of incredibly condensed information concerning the development of life, so too have kabbalists viewed the Hebrew language of Scripture as a cipher describing the universe. The Zohar relates that, "God looked into [the letters] of the Torah and created the universe."

The Zohar affirms that every sentence, every phrase, every word, and even every letter of the Bible exists simultaneously on several levels of meaning. This sacred work clearly declares, "Woe unto those who see in the Law nothing but simple narratives and ordinary words! . . . Every word of the Law contains an elevated sense and a sublime mystery."

In keeping with this notion, the Zohar devotes an entire section to the subtleties reflected in the single word Bereshit (usually translated as simply, "In the Beginning"), which opens the Book of Genesis and the Bible. Moreover, there is even a detailed discussion on the single letter Beit, which begins that first word. This approach to Scripture--and the Hebrew alpha­bet that communicates it--has remained central to the Kabbalah.

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Edward Hoffman

Edward Hoffman is a New York-based psychologist and author of many books in the fields of Jewish mysticism, spirituality, and psychology, including The Way of Splendor and Opening the Inner Gates.