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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"What did you do on Rosh Hashonah?" the great rabbi asked. Apologetically, the man replied that he was unlearned and could not even read the entire Hebrew alphabet. So, when the Rosh Hashonah services began at his synagogue, he had recited the first 10 letters and said, "Please, O Master of the Universe, take my letters and form them into words that will please You." And he had repeated this phrase all day long. Upon hear­ing the simple man's account, Rabbi Luria then understood that the heartfelt prayers of the uneducated villager had been more exalted than all others.

The early Hasidic leaders likewise extolled the Hebrew letters as vessels of the divine. Hasidism's charismatic founder, Israel ben Eliezer--known as the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name")--strongly emphasized this notion, both through colorful parables to unschooled folk and advanced kabbalistic techniques to selected disciples. "Every physical thing contains these 22 letters," he commented, "with which the world and every­thing in it are revealed." On another occasion, the Baal Shem Tov remarked that, "All things were created through combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters."

In Hasidism, the biblical craftsperson's name, Bezalel, means "in the shadow of God," for "to shadow" means "to emulate." Thus did Bezalel, through the knowledge of the power of the letters and their permutations, emulate God in the act of Creation…

Hidden Significances

As Jewish mystics and sages have taught for millennia, the Hebrew alphabet bears a host of hidden significances. In traditional Jewish thought, each letter--its name, pictorial form, numerical equivalent, and respective position in the alphabet--is ordained by God. As a corollary of this principle, Jewish law has decreed for millennia that every letter of a Torah scroll must be perfect, or else the entire scroll is forbidden to be used. Not a fragment of a single letter may be omitted or distorted; nor may its individual char­acter be compromised by contact with any other letters. Every word must be spelled correctly; one extra, transposed, or missing letter invalidates the whole scroll.

This religious dictum itself can be seen to impart a higher lesson: Each person, like each letter in the Torah, has a unique purpose in the divine plan. No one may impinge on another's particular mission in life, just as no two letters may overlap.

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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.