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The Secret Life of Letters

November 20, 2012 By:
Melissa Jacobs, Inside Feature
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Illustration by JA Kemp

If God wrote you a letter, would you read it? Well, God did, and you have. The letter is the Torah. For centuries, Jews have been reading the Torah again and again, poring through its stories, its heroes and villains, its messages and meanings.

What about the language in which the letter is written? What about the Hebrew alphabet? The letters that make up the letter? If God created those letters, wouldn’t they also have messages and meanings?

Yes, say Kabbalists. Studying the architecture of the alphabet unlocks deeper meanings in the Torah. And then, there are the numbers. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a numeric value. Adding and comparing numeric equivalencies among words and phrases in the Torah is part of the ancient practice called gematria.

What’s in a number? As the year 2013 approaches, much will be said about the number 13 and the references to it in modern culture. Jews don’t really have unlucky numbers, but there are favorite numbers. Eighteen, for example, is the multiple by which Ashkenazi Jews give monetary gifts. Sephardic Jews do so in multiples of 26. Why?Gematria. The value of the word “chai” is 18 and the value of God’s divine name is 26.

Other examples of gematria have seeped into our everyday lives. The letters of the word “mezuzah” have a value of 65, the equivalent of one of God’s names: Adonai. The value of the dreidel’s letters are used for its game.

But gematria goes farther. Rabbi Louis Jacobs wrote about gematria in his 1995 book The Jewish Religion: A Companion, (Oxford University Press). Jacobs used gematria to reinterpret one appropriate part of Genesis: Jacob’s ladder.

“The Hebrew word for ‘ladder,’ sulam, is formed from the letters samekh, lamed, mem,” he wrote. “Since the Hebrew letters also serve as numerals, the total of sulam is 130, i.e. samekh (60) + lamed (30) + mem (40) = 130. Now the Hebrew word for ‘Sinai,’ also has the numerical value of 130, i.e. samekh (60) + yud (10) + nun (50) + yud(10) = 130. Hence, one interpretation of Jacob’s ladder is that it represents the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the ‘angels’ who ascend and descend are Moses and Aaron.”

If God created the alphabet, when did mankind discover its hidden meanings? Exactly when gematria came into use is unknown, but the code and its secrets seem to have been unlocked in the Middle Ages in Western Europe.

“It was a time when Jews were barred from entering secular universities, so the Torah was what they studied,” says Dr. Edward Hoffman, who teaches psychology at Yeshiva University and has written and edited more than 20 books. “We’re talking about a lot of brilliant men with a lot of time on their hands. This may have occupied their minds. I don’t put a huge amount of stock in gematria, but there are certainly equivalencies and many of them are quite obvious. So it must be that God wanted us to find them.”

“Horse feathers,” states Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. The author of 18 books, including The Book of Letters: A Mystical Alef-Bait (Jewish Lights Publishing), Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar-In-Residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. “We are using our human minds to try to interpret God’s words? How presumptuous of us.”

God wrote the letter — the Torah — in plain language so that humans would understand it, Kushner says. “And misinterpretation can be very dangerous,” Kushner adds. “This could lead you down some wrong paths. By all means, enhance your knowledge of the Torah. But go with the basics. Work on honoring your mother and father.”

Where there is real mystical meaning, Hoffman and Kushner agree, is in the Hebrew letters. “It is a visually beautiful alphabet,” Hoffman says. “Look at the script of the letters, their curves and lines. Look at the ‘A,’ and then look at aleph. Which is more beautiful?”

Kushner uses aleph to share a letter-based gematria lesson. “If you had to make the letter aleph from other Hebrew letters, which would you use?,” he asks. “Here’s the answer: Take a vuv and tip it forward. Put a yud on its back. Put another yud on its stomach. From that, you get aleph.”

“Let’s look at the gematria of that,” Kushner continues. “Yud equals 10 and vuv equals six. Two yuds and a vuv equal 26. What else equals 26? The divine name of God. That means the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet contains the same value as He who gave it to us.”

Kushner takes this even further. “Some say that the two yuds and a vuv represent two eyes and a nose, which means every human has an aleph right in the middle of their face, which means that every face has a visual representation of God’s divine name.”

But this is not a secret of the text, Hoffman states. “It is as plain on the nose on your face,” he says. “It is simply a way of getting more out of God’s letter to us.”

A second example is the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet: bet. Its shape is of three lines that close its top, bottom and right. But bet is open on the left. “And which way is Hebrew read? From the right,” Kushner says. “And what is the first word of creation? ‘Bereshit.’ ‘In the beginning.’ Perhaps it is an anagram, or perhaps it was God’s way of saying, ‘Don’t pay attention to what is above, below or behind you. Pay attention to what is in front of you, because this is the beginning of the world.”

The way that those words are formed make them instruments of holy communication, the experts say. “Remember that Judaism is a religion that was created with words,” Kushner says. “Words made our world. God did not start with a lump of clay and use action to mold it. He used words. He said, with words, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was.”

“If God made the world with words, then letters in Hebrew are not merely as they are in other languages,” Hoffman says. “They are discrete entities with meanings. Their placement in the Hebrew language is not accidental. We are people of The Book and the letters of that book are incredibly important. The words, the alphabet; every single stroke of the Torah is holy and significant.”

“Aleph, bet, gimel; every schoolchild knows the Hebrew alphabet and we read them all the time,” Hoffman says, “but we often take them for granted. Let’s remember that God communicated to us via those letters. He gave them to us. They represent Jews’ relationship with God. Cherishing that language defines us as Jews.”

Certainly, God used the non-verbal burning bush, plagues and parting of the sea. Those were to get the attention of Hebrews and non-Hebrews, Kushner says. “But when it comes to the formation of Jewish law, God did not demonstrate the Ten Commandments,” Kushner says, “He said to Moses, ‘Write down these words.’ ”

This article originally appeared in the November, 2012 issue of Inside Magazine.

The gematria of Melissa Jacobs’s Hebrew name equals that of “Shalom.”

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