THE HEY AND THE CHES – So Very Alike Yet So Very Different!

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Loshon hakodesh is very different from all other languages in the world. Not only is each word chosen for the deep secrets it represents, but each letter too contains many secrets and hints in the way it is shaped and pronounced. Absolutely nothing is chosen haphazardly. Every little point (Tag) has a reason. Every single crown contains its hidden secrets. Of course, it takes a person as great as Rabbi Akiva to extract their meanings. It takes a Betzalel to know all the secret combinations of the words that created Heaven and Earth. Those great chachomim who mastered its code could create animals, bring dead people back to life and create anything and everything they wanted simply by understanding the secrets of the sefer Yetzirah.

The Gemorah tells many stories in which our chachomim used these powers to create or to bring the dead back to life. Odom Horishon, the first man on earth gave the animals their names. He certainly didn’t choose the names at random. He knew the chemical formula of every molecule. He knew the structure of every atom. He knew the biological composition of all life, of every fish, animal and bird. Not because his teacher had taught it to him. He never went to school. He was made, shaped and formed by Hashem Himself. And when Hashem makes something He does a perfect job. He gave him a brain that would put 1,000 Einsteins to shame. He gave him knowledge that would make all today’s scientists look like monkeys in comparison.

Actually, all the secrets of creation are contained in the first 42 letters of the Torah. If you sat and learned and learned and learned and didn’t waste your time with anything else, maybe some day you’d have a faint idea of what it says there. To most people it’s like trying to understand ancient hieroglyphic writings. It makes no sense. But, of course, those who studied hard and learned to crack its code, it’s all quite simple. A ten-year-old Chinese boy has absolutely no trouble reading a Chinese newspaper. Yet a well-educated college professor can’t make heads or tails of any of it.

Hashem certainly didn’t want all the hidden secrets revealed to the average reader. He didn’t want every layman to be able to tamper with His creation. Only an electrical engineer knows all the workings of the inside of a radio. The average person only needs to know the buttons up front. If he starts tampering around with the insides he’ll soon ruin everything. The sefer Yetzirah -which is the manual of creation, is written in a language that only the greatest Talmidei Chachomim in each generation would understand. Only they could decipher its hidden meaning. Maybe when Moshiach comes he’ll teach us all its great fascinating secrets.

Meanwhile, if we pay careful attention, maybe we can just learn to appreciate some very simple things. No very deep secrets at all. Just some very interesting observations about two of her seemingly similar letters.

The fifth letter “Heh” and the eighth letter “Ches” are so very similar, yet as we’ll soon see, they’re actually miles apart. All one needs is the tiniest drop of ink and the hey turns into a ches . Just one tiny drop of ink makes all the difference. It takes a billionth of a second more for a sofer to write a ches than a hey. Yet once a Sofer has written a ches in Tefillin or a Mezuzah, that’s it! Under no circumstances may he scratch out even the tiniest bit of ink and turn it back into a hey. If he did, then he would ruin the entire parsha (scroll)!

Not only would that word become posul (unfit), but the entire parsha would be ruined. Anyone wearing tefillin would really not be wearing kosher tefillin at all. Anybody having such a mezuzah on his doorpost would not be mekayem the Mitzvah of mezuzah in the least. His home would be completely unprotected. And all because of a little tiny drop of ink that’s barely visible. Yes, every drop counts. In fact, even the person examining these parshiyos(which the sofer incorrectly fixed by just giving the ches a small scratch) would never know the difference. They look identical to a kosher one. The damage done is not recognizable at all. The wearer or user may never even know of the problem and would have no reason to suspect that a problem even exists. He can put on tefillin all his life and yet never have gotten even one single Mitzvah of tefillin. What a terribly scary feeling. No wonder one must make sure to buy his tefillin only from a sofer he can fully trust. He must be a very big Yrei Shomayim. Just imagine you were buying a diamond ring worth a million dollars. Whom would you trust to evaluate its real worth? The Mitzvah of tefillin is worth infinitely more than the diamond ring. You had better be quite sure of their validity.

I remember a story of a sofer who was checking a boy’s pair of tefillin. The boy was very proud of them. They were originally his grandfather’s who had gotten them from his father. They were truly precious to the child. He was going to put them on the following week for his Bar Mitzvah. At the very last moment he had decided to bring them in to be checked, against other people’s objections. He just wanted to make sure they hadn’t deteriorated! As the sofer unrolled the parshios he saw they were indeed most beautiful. Absolutely magnificently written. A true masterpiece. He checked it carefully line by line to make sure there was no damage because of its age. Sometimes a letter can split or fade a bit. Suddenly he spotted something. The second letter in one of Hashem’s names read like a “Ches” . He took another look at it under his magnifying glass just to make sure he wasn’t imagining things. It was indeed a “Ches” instead of a “Heh“. The tefillin were posul and beyond repair. Whoever had worn these tefillin before was out of luck. This Mitzvah had been unfulfilled. It was all a charade! At least this Bar Mitzvah boy was spared such disaster! Just one tiny extra drop of ink and no tefillin and no Mitzvah. It’s a frightful thought!

Time moves forward only. There is absolutely no way to go back in time except in a science fiction book. It’s absolutely impossible to make up for lost time. The second that just passed is irreplaceable. It will never ever come back. So you’d better start using your seconds wisely. With time you get only once chance up at bat. One swing and you’re out. There’s no second try. Better make sure it’s done right the first time.

In fact, the Gemorah in mesechta Menochos 29 tells us that a hey is shaped just like a porch. It has three walls. One side is open. This symbolizes this world. It has three walls. The opening at the bottom leads to the fires of gehenom. If one sins then that’s where he falls. He has only one possible option. There is a very small opening at the top of its left-hand corner. That’s left there for the person who does teshuva (repentance). He must grab it carefully and crawl back in. But he better do it quickly before it’s too late.

If you take a good look into Rashi in Chumash (Breishis 2:4), you will notice that the original letter hey had only one opening at its bottom, which leads down to gehenom. It’s left leg was attached and hung from the top. The only difference between the hey and the ches was the size of the left leg. The Gemorah in Menochos 29 tells us that it was the scribes who were very exact, that hung the left foot of the hey in the air, the way our hey looks. This way people have a chance to do teshuva and climb back in.

We can understand this additional option of forming the letter in the following manner. Originally, when Hashem had created the world He had done so with the name Elokim, which represented midas hadin (judgement). A person who would sin would be punished immediately. There was no room for teshuva. The letter hey which is, of course, only a symbol for this world was therefore closed on all sides, as Rashi so eloquently points out. b’hibor’am – It was with the very small hey of this word that this world was created. A hey is the easiest of all the letters to pronounce. Every time we breathe we sound a hey. As the Medrash says, that with every breath a human offers praise to Hashem hallu Y-ah. Olam haboh (the world to Come) was created with the tiniest of all letters – the yud.) The small hey in the word b’hibor’am symbolizes that the world was created with the very least of effort. Yet, it was a very harsh world. It left no opening for the baal teshuva.

Hashem then realized that most ordinary mortals could not exist in such a world. He therefore combined it with the name of Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh, which stands for midas hachesed – kindness. He would give people a chance to do teshuva. Now the hey was changed to symbolize the concept of teshuva. The scribes that were very exact now hung the left leg of the hey to symbolize this changed concept. That’s why we now write it as we are familiar with. This now became the halacha. Doing it the other way then becomes posul. It goes without saying that this second option was given to us on Sinai. We can’t make changes on our own.

If you sin, then you had better do teshuva very quickly. Then the hey will let you in. But wait just one second extra and you may be stuck in a ches The letter ches has no openings on its side. Then it’s already too late. You fall straight down into the raging fires of gehenom. There’s absolutely nothing on which to grab hold. That’s because ches is the first letter in the word chometz., a word that stands for boastfulness, pride and arrogance. Just take one look at a piece of chometz and you’ll know why. It’s all puffy and fluffed up. It contains nothing more than Matzoh except for a lot of hot air.

The baal gaavoh (haughty person) is much the same. On the outside he gives the appearance of being puffed up. Yet he’s really full of a lot of hot air. Gaavoh, pride, has been responsible for the fall of even the greatest of people. And when you fall down, you just keep falling and falling. There’s no place to grab or hold on. No wonder it’s also the first letter in the word chet (sin). For one of the leading causes of sin is pride. When Yerovom was asked by Hashem to do teshuva and in return Hashem Himself will walk him through the Garden of Eden together with Dovid himself – can one be in better company? Yet he asked Hashem, who would be in the lead, he or Dovid? When Hashem said it would be Moshiach, and he, Yerovom, would go second, he replied, No favors, and down he went falling into the bottomless pit of gehenom, never to get out. His pride wouldn’t let him do teshuva.

In fact, that’s why you’ll see a strange looking ches in the Torah, tefillin and mezuzos. The Gemorrah in Menochos 29: tells us that some scribes would always write the ches with a pointy roof the way you see it written in a sefer Torah. This is to get you to look up to Hashem. Only by constantly looking up toward Hashem would you be careful not to sin and fall straight down into gehenom.

The original ches on the luchos looked like our printed one. It had a straight line on top. That’s because the letter ches represents those sins for which teshuva itself does not help. For instance, the Rambam says that for commiting the sin of chilul Hashem one needs teshuva, Yom Kippur and death itself in order to attain forgiveness. Chilul Hashem is a terribly great sin. The Rambam also lists other terribly great sins for which teshuva alone does not help. These sins are represented by the shape of the letter ches which doesn’t allow you anything to hold onto. Once you’ve chas v’sholom slipped you go flying down. It’s a frightful thought.

How careful we must be not to chas v’sholom sin with any of these terrible sins. How can we prevent ourselves from doing these sins and falling into the raging fires of gehenom? The exacting scribes shaped the ches to point upward to Hashem. They are giving us a powerful hint. We must constantly realize that Hashem is above us and is watching us at every second. The Mishna in Mesechta Ovos tells us that one must constantly realize that Hashem is above us in order to prevent us from doing a sin. There is always the vtur ihg -the eye that sees. Always remember that Hashem is up there watching you. One cannot forget this for even one single moment. No wonder all our cheses nowadays are made like this, rather than with a straight roof. So next time you see a ches in the Torah, don’t forget to where it’s pointing. We must point out that this second option was allowed and given to us by Moshe me’Sinai.

However, even if we’ve chas v’sholom fallen and committed such a great sin that the doors of teshuva have been closed to us, all is still not lost. The Gemorah tells us that even though teshuva done out of fear does not help, however, one can still do teshuva out of love . This type of teshuva helps when everything else fails. In fact, if one does teshuva out of love for Hashem, then all his bad deeds are turned into Mitzvos. You can be sure that doing such a type of teshuva is extremely hard indeed. Very few people can reach this very high madreigoh. It’s extremely difficult but not impossible.

This is symbolized by the letter kuf. Notice that the kuf is really a ches whose left leg has been lowered. That’s because the one who does teshuva out of love still has a chance to gain entry. He is welcomed with open arms, as the Gemorrah in Mesechta Shabbos 104. says: “Why is the leg of the kuf Hanging? So that is a person wahts to do teshuvah he can enter through there.” If someone wants to be metaher himself, then Hashem will help him. All we have to do is open up our hearts the size of the eye of a needle. Just a very tiny bit. Hashem will open for us the gates of teshuva like the opening of the okut which was the largest of the openings in the Bais Hamikdosh that led directly into the kodesh! So let’s open up our hearts. What are we waiting for?

Of course, the letter ches in itself is not bad. No letter is good or bad. They’re all neutral. It just depends how man uses them. After all, letters make words. Words are not good or bad. It depends how you use them in a sentence. Every word can be used for good or for bad. It depends on the ches, for he’s the chochom the wise person to use them properly. The wise person will use the letter ches for chesed-kindness. This brings chai– true life and gives a person real chenpeople’s eyes.

The ches is also the center letter of that hated enemy of all mankind – the evil and poisonous snake nachash. It’s because of the few evil words he said to Chava that people still die today. If not for him we would live forever. Even the greatest tzaddikim who have done no sin at all must also die. All on account of the snake. All on account of one single false statement. Yishai, the father of Dovid, was nicknamed the” snake”. That’s because he was so perfect that he didn’t deserve to die. He died only because of the snake’s sin. What a great lesson that is for us. One false statement. One bit of slander. One sentence of loshon horah or motzei shem rah, and we fall far lower than even the snake. Next time you see the word nochosh just look at its center letter. You surely know where that leads you. So you’d better look up quickly. Make sure your realize that Hashem is always up there, looking down at your every move. He sees everything. It’s all being recorded on a special video camera with a telephoto lens mounted in the Heavens above. Someday when you get up there they’ll play it all back to you. And guess who’ll be the star of the show? YOU! So make sure you get your act together. You wouldn’t want to be embarrassed, would you? The nochosh is a very dangerous poisonous snake. When one speaks loshon hora it poisons other people’s minds. It kills the speaker as well as the innocent listener. They both fall down together at the very same speed, according to Newton’s law of gravity. It doesn’t make a difference who’s heavier.

The first letter of the word nochosh tells you what’s going to happen if you’re not careful. Nun stands for kpb to fall. This letter is the most hated of all letters. That’s why Dovid doesn’t even give it the courtesy of being part of his beautiful praise of Ashrei. He wants absolutely no part of such tragedy. He leaves it out altogether. In fact, the very word nofal, which means to fall, also can be read as nefel- a child born dead. It never even had a chance at breathing. It died before it even had an opportunity to enjoy life. Can there be a greater fall than this? You don’t even get a chance. Why? I don’t know, but there surely is a reason for everything.

The word nochosh was Yishai’s name. A symbol of a very great tzaddik who had no aveiros. He had killed the evil nochosh and taken his sword away. He even lay claim to its name. That’s because words in themselves are not bad or good. It’s how they are used. A snake can bite you. Yet when staring at the copper serpent which Moshe made, one could be healed. There’s a good ches and a bad ches. It all depends how you use it.

Yaakov called the tribe of Dan by the name snake – nochosh. Rashi says that the Targum explains that he is likened to the most poisonous of all snakes. When this snake bites its victim then there is absolutely no antidote for the bite. Its poison leaves the victim defenseless. There is no cure for its strong venom.

This power of the snake is, of course, given a positive meaning. A snake symbolizes the great power of the tongue which can of course be used for good or bad. As when Rabbi Eliezer and the chachomim were arguing about a certain type of oven (to see if it was tomeh or not). They argued over it so strongly that it became known as the the oven of achnai (snake), -the oven which was surrounded by arguments from every single possible angle. As if a snake had wrapped itself around the oven.

The Gemorah tells us in Mesechta Taanis 5:” that any talmid chochom that does not scream out as a snake when the Torah is under attack” is not considered a true talmid chochom. If one would approach a scientist l’havdil and tear up all of the papers he had written, you can be sure the scientist would not take it hands down. He would scream and yell for all he’s worth. If he would remain silent then you can be sure that the papers are probably worthless. A talmid chochom who sees the honor of Torah being torn down and doesn’t come to its defense with the same violence as a snake comes at its victim, simply does not properly treasure and value the Torah. If he knew its true value then he couldn’t stand there in silence.

The tribe of Dan were the teachers of Torah and the judges of Klal Yisroel. Their answers were so powerful that they disarmed their opponents with one word. They so silenced their opponents that they had absolutely no more questions to ask. They were likened to the poisonous snake for which there is no antidote for its bite. They so defeated their opponents with their clever and sharp proofs that they left their opponents totally disarmed.

Change the nun around and put it at the end of the word instead, and you have choshen (Zohar Pkudei) – the holy breastplate of the kohen godol. With it you could get the answer to all your questions. Hashem Himself would make it light up and give us the answers. Yet, it was the kohen godol with his ruach hakodesh that would have to know how they fit together.

The nun, in fact, is made very large in the word Notzer Chesed. We need lots of mercy not to fall prey to the snake’s terrible venom. Loshon hora, says the Gemorah, is a sin that ensnares just about everybody. Almost every person is guilty of it in some form or other. We need great heavenly mercy not to fall into the snake’s trap.

The nun at V’yhe binso’ah is turned around (or inverted, according to some others). This symbolizes that we must be sure to use to use the nun in order to carry the Torah at all times. This is our only salvation. If the yetzer hora tries to grab hold of us, then we must bring him into the bais hamedrash. Only the power of Torah will help us overcome his traps. If we hold on to the poles of the aron, then the Torah will carry us .

Letters by themselves can be symbolic (and can have many different symbols), yet it’s when they are joined with others that they convey real meaning. Individually they tell only a bit of the story. This teaches you that you are never allowed to learn alone. You must always have a chavrusa. In fact, the ches tells us k’nei l’cha chaver – you should actually buy yourself a friend who will be a constant aid to you.

Yet, if you dare change even one letter of a word you can be sued for libel. Every letter is important. Leave out even one of the many thousands written in the Torah and it is posul. Every letter has chashivus. Just like every single Jew is important. No one can be left out.

But let’s get back to the hey. He is so holy that you’ll find him written twice in Hashem’s name. One hey for before a person has sinned, and one for the person who has already sinned but has done teshuva. In the thirteen attributes of mercy the name Hashem appears twice.. After all, you’ll remember that there is a little space left in the corner for the baal teshuva to come in. Nowadays, there is probably no person that has not committed a sin. Therefore, we are all in the category of baalei teshuva. Some more and some less. We owe our thanks to the hey for letting us back in.

In fact, the Gemorah also tells us that it was with this letter alone that Hashem created the Universe. That’s because, as we’ve already explained, the pronunciation of the letter hey takes the least possible effort. It’s the easiest of all the letters to pronounce. Just breathe out without moving your tongue at all. Don’t move anything, and the sound of a hey will come out. It’s symbolic of the great ease with which the entire world was created. It was effortless.

How lucky we are that Hashem used the hey. For without allowing teshuva the world would be unable to exist. A hey can be put in front of any noun and give it importance. Something that’s important in itself lends importance to others. Honor Hashem and He will bring honor upon you.

It was this very holy letter that was added to Avrohom and Soroh’s name that made them be able to have children. For when one realizes that there is absolutely no one except for Hashem Himself that can help him, then Hashem will be with him. He’s just waiting for you to pray to Him. Avrohom and Soroh prayed very hard. Hashem loves the prayer of a tzaddik. He gave them each a hey from His name and then everything was fine. A person must realize that all of creation symbolized by the hey is nothing but a manifestation of Hashem Himself .

The hey stands for hallel – praise. As we look around at all of Hashem’s creations (which He created with the letter hey), we can’t help but cry out in praise of His unbelievable greatness. After all, all of creation is a praise to its Creator – Hashem. That’s the meaning of all the hallu Y-ah. – which we say in our tefillah.

The hey is also the letter given to those who convert and become Jews. (See Tosfos in Mesechta Chagiga 9:) That’s where we get names like Ben hei hei or Ben bag bag. They were geirim – converts, and therefore we give them a name that equals five, which is the value of the hey, the very letter added to Avrohom’s name in order to make him the father of all nations.

No wonder Hagar, who was a great convert to Yiddishkeit, starts with a hey and reads hey-ger, Hey the ger. She, as you surely know, was the daughter of Pharaoh. She gave up all her prospects of royalty in her own father’s palace to become an ordinary maid in the house of Avrohom. What a great tzadekess she must have been for such a great deed. Certainly Avrohom would not marry a woman unless she was on the highest of madreigos.

Basya, Pharaoh’s daughter, acted in the same admirable manner. Despite her father’s great wickedness, she became a real true convert to Yiddishkeit and therefore her name ends with the hey – the letter found twice in Hashem’s name. (Her name also means the daughter of Hashem no simple title.) The hey, as we all know, refers to the five Chumoshim -the very source of our life. Hashem created the entire universe using the Torah as the blueprint. That may also be another meaning of “this world was created with the hey” which symbolized the Chumash.

The Gemorah in Mesechta Brochos 10 tells us that Dovid Hamelech sang five Borchi Nafshis to Hashem. These correspond to the five different worlds he lived in and sang out in praise for all of Hashem’s creations in each of the different worlds in which he found himself. It also corresponds to the five ways in which Hakodosh Boruch Hu and the neshomo of a person are similar (See the Gemorah for the full explanation.)

Certainly letters contain far deeper symbolic meanings than those we’ve discussed in this short essay. The deeper one delves into the Torah the more of its secrets one discovers. Keep studying and you certainly will discover much more. Dig deeper and deeper, and you will discover more and more. That’s because everything can be found in it.