The Aleph-Beit (Hebrew alphabet) is unlike any other alphabet. It is not merely 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, respective positions and the words they form are divinely ordained. The physical manifestation of the letters and words they form is G-d’s translation of his divine wisdom and power into physical reality. (In other words, G-d did not create letters and words then imbue them with divine wisdom and power. Rather, the letters and words are the consequence of his transfer of spirituality into physical form.) It is no wonder then that we learn Torah laws and philosophy for life from the names, forms, sounds, numerical values and positions of the letters and from the words they form. It should also not be surprising that the universe was created with the letters, meaning, with the divine wisdom and powers represented them.
A consequence of this is the Jewish law requiring every letter in a Torah scroll, tefillin and 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, donning of the tefillin and affixing of the mezuzah.
The tractate, Sabbath, is the source of the classic passages on the Aleph-Beit. 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 a Torah scroll, tefillin and mezuzah.
The third and fourth letters, “Gimmel and Dalet, stand for gimol dalim, be kind to the poor. Why is the leg of the Gimmel (the kind man) pulled towards the Dalet (the 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.”
“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 next to each other (Shin, Kuf and Reish) while the letters of emes are spread out? (The first letter of emes is the first letter of the Aleph-Beit, Aleph, the middle letter is the center letter (Mem) and the last letter is the last letter in the Aleph-Beit, Tav.) Because falsehood is common and truth is uncommon. (Falsehood is rampant and truth is sparse.) 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 donning 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?
G-d is the architect and engineer of the world. He has given us the Torah as the blueprint to life as a guide and means to reach the spiritual and moral goals set forth within and to emulate his divine character. He has appointed Torah scholars as his foremen to interpret and assist on the ground in directing his divine master plan. The sofer is a member of this holy labor force. The consumer is the recipient of this divine labor. Each play an integral and responsible part in the fulfillment of the divine plan. A well planned vehicle assembled by unskilled craftsmen will be of no value. A well manufactured vehicle driven by a child or drunk will end in damage or injury. The sofer and consumer must fulfill their part in the divine plan, each must learn his part in order to be able to perform flawlessly. The sofer must know the necessary laws and maintain a high level of integrity and piety as his calling demands. The end user must learn the practical laws related to tefillin and mezuzah and consult knowledgeable individuals when necessary. Only if each of us fulfill our jobs flawlessly will the intended spiritual energy, through the fulfillment of the mitzvahs of tefillin and mezuzah, flow into this world. With incorrect intentions, without precise adherence to the halacha and lack of commitment and desire, the potential energy that is contained within the divine letters and words cannot be fully released into our world.
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 holy scrolls. As consumers we it is our responsibility to investigate before acquiring and to learn the basic, practical halacha, enabling us to fulfill the mitzvahs correctly, ensuring a smooth and generous flow of spiritual energy through the sacred letters.
Originally published in www.jewishmagazine.com
Significant sections of this article are reprinted with permission from The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael Munk, published by Artscroll/Mesorah Publications, 1983.