Article -

The Alphabet


Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman







Introduction

For many of us, written language is as much a part of our reality as air—we hardly notice it, although it is constantly around us, influencing us consciously and unconsciously.
But the development of our writing system, the alphabet, was a long, complex process that is still evolving and essentially shapes the way we think and communicate. Our interest in the process has two foci: 1) the role of the alphabet in Creation and creativity within Jewish and 2) the letters of the alphabet in art, especially but not only in response to the Torah`s image prohibition.
The most ancient antecedents of writing are the famous Paleolithic cave paintings discovered in France and Spain in the 19th century. Although we still do not know the exact purpose of these paintings, it is clear that the concept of symbolization is already at work – the drawing of a horse somehow represents the horse itself.

The next stage in the development of writing is the pictogram – a stylized, rather than naturalistic depiction of an object, for example * as a sign for the Sun. Pictograms were developed by the Sumerians and their heirs, the Babylonians, into cuneiform script, in which each sign represented a syllable. In the land of Canaan, pictograms became single consonants, which became the basis of the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets.

Note in particular the graphic similarity as well as the changes between the various alephs, the vavs, the mems, the ayins.

Like the alpha as the brightest star in a constellation, like the alpha and omega signifying ultimate beginnings and ends, so the aleph is the source of the heightened devotion of Jewish mysticism to the Hebrew alphabet, not for the sake of calligraphic acrobatics, but to create a symbol set by which we can see, hear, and quantify a personal connection with God.
Jewish mysticism has much in common with the mysticisms of other religions, but is distinguished by the importance it places on the written and spoken word of God as found in Torah. As Gershom Scholem points out, “that the word of God made itself heard through the medium of human language, acoustically and linguistically, is one of the most important legacies bequeathed by Judaism to the religions of the world” (“The Name of God and the Linguistic Theory of the Kabbalah”, Diogenes 79 (1972) 60).
For Jewish mysticism the whole purpose of language is to convey God`s word. The Talmudic sage known as Resh Lakish expressed this idea, linking Creation with Revelation through a Midrash on the naming of the days in Genesis 1, where they are called simply Day 1, Day 2 until “Day 6”:

For Resh Lakish said: Why is it written, And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day; What is the purpose of the additional `the`? This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, made Creation conditional, saying `If Israel accepts the Torah, you shall thrive; but if not, I will return you to emptiness and formlessness.`

(Shabbat 88a)


The
sixth day of Genesis 1 is midrashically connected to the sixth day of the month of Sivan, Shavuot, the day of the giving of Torah, thus identifying Creation with Revelation.

Rabbi Mendel Torum of Rymanov (d. 1814) was concerned with what we actually heard on Mount Sinai. For him, revelation was both an acoustic and a linguistic challenge. What could God possibly sound like? He concluded that Israel heard only the first letter of the first word of the first commandment, namely, the aleph of the word Anokhi, “I am.” Even a beginning student in Hebrew would be instantly perplexed, since aleph is a silent letter. Scholem explains what Mendel Torum meant: that the aleph may be said to denote the source of all articulate sound, the “potential sound of the divine larynx, as it were, about to speak.” Imagine hearing only the aleph, the latent possibility of all sound. In this way Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation at Sinai into a mystical revelation “pregnant with infinite meaning but without specific meaning.”

The aleph is the appropriate climax of the following tale, which relates how God came to use the letters of the Torah to create the world:

The letters personified vied in turn for the first position in Creation. Each one presented herself as the embodiment of a particular quality that is essential for Creation, beginning with the last letter of the alphabet, the tav, which stands for Torah. The Holy One countered each positive quality with a negative quality; thus tav is the X that marks the doomed man. When the letters finally counted down to bet, which stands for bracha `blessing`, there was no possible negative. So the Torah begins with bet, bereshit: In the beginning (bereshit) God created the heavens and the earth. The modest and silent aleph, the last letter in the countdown, was mollified with second place: aleph was chosen to begin the Ten Commandments as Anokhi, “I am.” Thus the aleph, apparently the understudy, became the star of revelation.

The tale, then, is an expression of the critical nature of every component of the Torah (including even the spaces between its letters), since the Torah is God`s plan for the world. The letters represent the basic units of the Torah, the atoms of the world and meaning and therefore it is critical that the plan begin positively, with blessing.

Scholem further explains the obvious that we probably never thought of: that vowels enable us to pronounce words. The vowel is the breath that connects the consonants. It is like the rest, the pause between notes in music that enables us to hear the music. This breath, this air, says Scholem, is clearly the breath of God (And the wind, spirit, of God hovered over the face of the deep, Genesis 1:2). Ah, so God plays hide and seek in the vowels! To clinch the argument we are reminded that God`s official name YHWH or EHYH (the Tetragram) is composed only of breath letters (vowels), an unpronounceable sequence of exhaled breath. Those four letters in Hebrew—yod, heh, vav, aleph—were originally consonants that worked over time as vowels centuries before the Tiberian system of dots and dashes came into use in the 9th century of our era


Sound wave – language as connection between Man and God

Sound wave – language as connection between Man and God

This picture, originally published horizontally, is intended to illustrate the phenomenon of sound waves, through which our speech is conveyed to others. But vertically it can also be understood as a metaphor for prayer being heard. The sound waves follow the opening of the larynx, where the invisible aleph initiates sound.








Mystical character of Hebrew letters


R. Moshe Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim

R. Moshe Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim

Cordovero`s aleph is a non-iconic picture of God, who cannot be pictured. The head, torso, hands and feet of the aleph are inscribed with the names of the sephirot, which are the characteristics of God`s personality. Since God is One and All, then the aleph, which is No. 1 and first, is God`s perfect portrait.

The sephirot are also a way of visualizing the connection between God and Man, the basic mystery of the kabbalistic world – how can there be a connection between the wholly spiritual and the mundane material? The sephirotic network is a picture of the gradual process of the descent from the spiritual to the material. In the pictures below, the sephirot are inscribed as limbs of a tree (on the left) and on the right, as limbs of the human body.


Robert Fludd, The sephirot as an inverted tree

Robert Fludd
The sephirot as an inverted tree


C.D. Ginsburg, The sephirot as Adam Kadmon

C.D. Ginsburg
The sephirot as Adam Kadmon


As Mendel Torum was concerned with what we heard on Sinai, R. Phineas asks what did we see on Mount Sinai? An image first found in the Palestinian Talmud
(Shekalim 25b) reads:
R. Phineas in the name of R. Simeon b. Levi said, The Torah that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Moses was given to him as white fire inscribed with black fire: fire mixed with fire, carved out of fire and given into fire, as it is written, From his right hand eternal fire
(Deuteronomy 33:2)


Ben Shahn, Alphabet of Creation

Ben Shahn, Alphabet of Creation

A striking visualization of “black fire on white fire” is Ben Shahn`s graphic entitled The Alphabet of Creation. White fire is light, the presence of God. Black fire is darkness, the necessary background that frames dynamic shapes of light. This phenomenon has been translated into alphabet symbolism as follows: The Torah scribe sits before the vast white parchment. Entrusted with the sacred task of copying God`s word he draws black letters onto the white expanse. Suddenly the white formless surface begins to take shape around the black letters. Parts of God`s presence, the white fire, becomes visible thanks to the black fire of the letters. The bottom line: God (the white fire) needs us (the human endeavor, the black fire) so that some aspect of the Divine can be apprehended by humanity. Looking carefully at Ben Shahn`s Alphabet of Creation, as looking intently at a page of Torah, we can also focus on the mystery of the background, the larger context.


M. Ardon, Creation Series: Aleph, 1970

M. Ardon, Creation Series: Aleph, 1970


The first thing that engages the viewer in Mordecai Ardon`s lithograph is the large aleph on the left. On closer observation, there is a lacy fabric made of letters behind the aleph. The eye is further drawn to the right, to a super-dense red point emanating from within a whirling propeller, often identified as a perpetual motion machine. We may also see this point as the אין סוף, the ultimate beginning, the seed of the Big Bang. Thus, Divine energy is churning out the fabric of letters from which the big aleph emerges—potential to actual, visionary to mundane, chaos to order. This process of Creation is not only a one-time event. In the traditional morning liturgy, it is a daily miracle:


“The One who in His goodness renews the act of Creation each day.”


Michele Zackheim, The Tent of Meeting (detail)

Michele Zackheim, The Tent of Meeting (detail)

Above is part of a larger work called The Tent of Meeting, conceived by Michele Zackheim during her pilgrimage to Jebel Musa = Mt. Sinai. The Tent recalls the biblical Tent of Meeting, where “whoever sought the Lord would go …. And the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another” (Exod. 33:7, 11). Incorporating Jewish, Christian, and Islamic imagery, The Tent of Meetingexpresses the hope that all who trace their origins to Abraham may see and understand in a new way.

One of Zackheim`s panel deals with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Moses and the tablets are dwarfed by the awesome mountains of Sinai. Hovering over him is the Divine Presence, represented as the pillar of cloud in the form of an aleph. Thus the voiceless first letter of the first word of the First Commandment is given visual articulation. Through her sophisticated use of hi-tech xerography, Zackheim combines two age-old characteristics of Jewish art-narrative and symbol.

Pictorially, the aleph is composed of an upper yod and a lower yod, connected by a diagonal vav. The upper yod can be seen as representing God, since it is the first letter of the Tetragram. The lower yod can be understood as the human being, created in the image. The vav (meaning `hook`, `and`) can be read as the way in which we connect.


Mark Podwal, Yad

Mark Podwal, Yad


In Mark Podwal`s Torah pointer, which in Hebrew is called a yad `hand,` (related to the letter yod, that began as a pictograph of the hand) the finger at its top becomes the vav in the Divine Name. Thus, the yad operates as an axis mundi, a world axis, connecting us with God. Similarly, Ted, a student of Hebrew calligraphy, focuses on the yod in God`s name as the means of making his own personal connection.


Ted Virts, Yods

Ted Virts, Yods

Ted writes about his yods:


How tight my hand becomes trying to grasp the simple stroke. When I relax, the image comes easier. How tight I become in trying to grasp God. Would that I could relax and let the light come to me.

Each yod is different yet recognizable. God may be the same, but each of us sees differently. Or perhaps God is different to each of us so that we know God from the place where we are able to know.


Even when I am not satisfied, others may see my intent. God may be recognized in my mistakes. God may be recognized in my successes.


Writing is an act of an individual; meaning is an act of the community. Without meaning, there is no writing; without writing, there is no meaning.


Andy Herron-Sweet, Aleph, 1986

Andy Herron-Sweet, Aleph, 1986

Andy, a divinity student, expresses a personal theology through the aleph:

The idea behind the two yods [that make up the aleph] is that, when the larger one is in the upper right, I feel very small in the face of a huge God. God is so huge, in fact, that God extends to the walls of the creation and encompasses all that is. The print may be turned upside down, and then I am the large encompassing body, in which God is a small piece. God is within me.

After I had cut the block, I realized there was a strong resemblance between the large yod and a wave and the small yod and a drop of water. This is quite appropriate. I see myself as being a drop in the “waters” of creation, the waters of life. A song I know has the chorus: “We are drops of water in a mighty ocean, we are sons and daughters of one life.” Alternately, human bodies are something like 98 percent water, so God can be a drop in the water of my being, a drop indistinguishable from all the other drops.








Letters in nature


Franz, aleph in tree roots

Franz, aleph in tree roots

The alphabet has become so much a part of our world that we begin to see it in nature, a human construct. For example, camera in hand, Franz turned to the hills “with the intention of finding a form that by my action would be consecrated as a sacred image.” Significantly, the image alone could not be sacred, without the interaction, the process of the seeker.

This photograph is my aleph. Roots are a fine material for the aleph because they connect with the earth, with the inside, and also lead to the tree, which aspires to heaven. Here, roots are a mystical symbol. They are the axis mundi, leading up to God and even down to the underworld.

These roots show strength, power, and naturalness. Yet they move so slowly and their lines are unsure; they are blind: they must grope toward God. This comes close to my own relationship to God. Like a root, I am bound to the earth, blind, twisted. Yet it may be said I too am part of the axis mundi, the Tree of Life. If there is a Godhead I know that I aspire to it. I think if I can become as a root to the Tree I will be fulfilled.

The above works by students of theology and the arts emerge from the larger context of Hebrew calligraphy. The examples below are especially creative uses of the alphabet.


Hamilton Siddur, Spain or southern France, 13th century

Hamilton Siddur, Spain or southern France, 13th century

We are charmed in the Hamilton Siddur by the whimsical zoomorphs playing within the letters of the text from the Passover Haggadah regarding “signs and wonders.”


San`a Pentateuch, Yemen, 1469

San`a Pentateuch, Yemen, 1469


More abstract, although still figurative, are the micrographic fish adorning the center of the carpet page from a 15th century Yemenite Bible manuscript. The micrography spells out the text of Psalm 119, which is a lengthy hymn of praise to God employing an acrostic pattern, which encourages alphabet play. The figures, however, bear no known relationship to the text. The tiny letters have become purely decorative pointillistic dots. Paradoxically, micrography transforms words into images








Back to objects


Our journey with the alphabet began with real objects that became picture symbols, pictographs, signs, hieroglyphs and finally letters. But then, as we have seen, the letters stimulated artists` and thinkers` minds to transform them into literary and graphic creations. Thus, we come full circle and produce objects out of letters.


Gizel Berman, Lo Tishkach, 1981

Gizel Berman, Lo Tishkach, 1981


Gizel Berman, Lo Tishkach, 1981

Gizel Berman, Lo Tishkach, 1981


Holocaust survivor, artist Gizel Berman created a memorial to the six million for her adopted community in Seattle using the Hebrew letters of the phrase “you shall not forget” (לא תשכח), in which the lamed is especially evocative: the chimneys of the Auschwitz, an upraised arm of rage, etc. In the original design (on the left) the monumental proportions create an environment that the viewer can enter, be engulfed by the flaming letters so that the point is not to read the letters, but to experience them.

J.Kremer, Braille Genesis, 1986

J.Kremer, Braille Genesis, 1986

Zelig Segal, Touching Light, 2003

Zelig Segal, Touching Light, 2003


On a different level of abstraction, the development of the Braille alphabet in the 1820`s transformed the two-dimensional letters into a three-dimensional code to enable the blind to read all letters and numbers by feeling relief forms in combinations of six dots. On the left, above, the first verse of Genesis is written in English, Hebrew (written from left to right) and Braille. Israeli artist Zelig Segal has taken the low relief of Braille and made it into a free standing sculpture, so that the “blind viewer” can read the sculpture by feeling the top surface of the cylinders that spell
out יהי אור `let there be light`.


Article Sources:

Midrash Aseret Hadibrot
The first commandment: It is written, Who can tell the mighty acts of the Lord, proclaim all His praises (Psalms 106:2). Even the angels cannot tell His mighty acts, but only teach some of what He has done and what shall come to pass, in order to exalt and praise the Name of the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. He created the Torah, that is more desirable than gold and fine gold, sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb (Psalms 19:11). And when the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to create the world, he consulted the Torah and said, I will create the world, so that my mighty acts be known. When the Torah heard this, she answered and said before Him, Lord of the Universe, You foretell the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and all secrets are known to You - do as You wish… 
And when he desired to create the world, all the letters came in turn and each said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Lord of the Universe, may it be Your will that the world be created through me. First, tav came before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said to Him: Lord of the Universe, may it be Your will that You create the world through me, since your Torah is named by me. The Holy One, blessed be He, answered her: It shall not be according to your wish, since fraud (trumot, Proverbs 29:4) begins with you. Afterwards shin entered…It shall not be according to your wish, since falseness (shav) and bribery (shohad) begin with you and it is not fitting to create the world on a letter that does not stand firmly on the ground. Afterwards, all the letters entered in turn, until bet entered last and said: Lord of the Universe, may it be Your will to create the world through me, since your sons will bless Your name by me, as it is said Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (Psalms 118:26), Blessed is the Lord each day (Psalms 68:20), Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel (Psalms 41:14). When aleph saw that the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to create the world through bet, she stood to one side and was silent, until the Holy One, blessed be He, called her and said to her: aleph, why are you silent; why do you not speak as your companions? Aleph answered and said before Him: Lord of the Universe, My companions amount to much, but I am of little value. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to her: No wonder that you are the first and the sovereign, since I am One and you are one. Since you have been humble, I will glorify you by making you a thousand (elef). And He also said to her, Be consoled that when I give the Torah, I will begin with you. Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, began with anokhi when He gave the Torah to Israel.
 
 
Jer. Tal. Shekalim 25b
R. Phineas in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish, The Torah which the Holy One, blessed be He, gave is white fire. The letters with which it is engraved are black fire. It is fire, surrounded by fire, engraved out of fire, and set in fire, With flaming fire at his right hand (Deut. 33:2).
 
Jer. Tal. Hagigah 10a
R. Jonah said in the name of R. Levi, The world was created by the letter bet. As bet is closed on all sides except one, so you may not investigate what is above, what is below, what went before or shall happen afterward, only what has happened since the world [and its inhabitants were created]. If the letter bet was asked, Who created you?, it would point with its upper stroke and say, He above.
[If asked,] What is his name?, it would point with its lower projection to the right [toward the letter aleph] and say, YHWH is his name, ADON is his name.
Another interpretation: Why [was the world created] by the letter bet? Because it is in the word `blessing.`
[And why] not by the letter aleph? Because it is in the word `curs­ing.` The Holy One, blessed be He, said, I created my world only by the letter bet lest its inhabitants say, How can a world created by the word `cursing` endure?` But, behold, I create it by the letter bet in the word `blessing,` and perhaps it will endure.
 
Bab. Tal. Menahot 29b
…R. Judah b. R. Ila`i. [Yah] refers to the two worlds which the Holy One, blessed be He, created—one with the letter he and other with the letter yod. Yet I do not know whether the future world was created with the yod and this world with the he or this world with the yod and the future world with the he; but since it is written, These are the generations of the heaven and the earth when they were created: read not be-hibare`am [`when they were created`], but be-he bera`am, `He created them with the he; hence I may say that this world was created with the he and the future world with the yod. And wherefore was this world created with the he? Because it is like an exedra [closed on three sides like the he] and whosoever wishes to go astray may do so.
 
Bab. Tal. Berakoth 55a
Rab Judah said in the name of Rab, Bezalel knew how to combine the letters by which the heavens and earth were created. It is written here, And He has filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding, and in knowledge; and it is written elsewhere, The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens; and it is also written, By His knowledge the depths were broken up.
 
Genesis Rabba 1:10
In the beginning (be-reshith) God created - R. Jonah said in R. Levi`s name: Why was the world created with a beth?Just as the beth is closed at the sides but open in front, so you may not to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind. Bar Kappara quoted, For ask now of the days past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth(Deut. 4:32) - you may speculate from the day that days were created, but you may not speculate on what was before that. And from one end of heaven unto the other(ibid.) -you may investigate, but you may not investigate what was before this.
R. Judah b. Pazzi lectured on the Creation story, in accordance with this interpretation of Bar Kappara: Why was it created with a beth?To teach you that there are two worlds.
Another interpretation: why with aleph?Because it connotes blessing (berakah). And why not with an aleph?  Because it connotes cursing.
Another inter­pretation: Why not with an aleph?In order not to provide a justification for heretics to claim, How can the world endure, seeing that it was created with the language of cursing? Hence the Holy One, blessed be He, said, Lo, I will create it with the language of blessing, and would that it may stand!
Another interpretation: why with a beth?Just as a beth has two projecting points, one pointing upward and the other backward, so when we ask it, Who created you?, it gestures with its upward point, He who is above created me. And if we ask further, What is His name?, it gestures to us with its hind point, The Lord is His name.
R. Leazar b. Abinah said in R. Aha`s name, For twenty-six generations the aleph complained before the Holy One, blessed be He, pleading before Him, Sovereign of the Universe! I am the first of the letters, yet You did not create Your world with me! God answered, The world and its fullness were created for the sake of the Torah alone. Tomorrow, when I come to reveal My Torah at Sinai, I will commence with none but you: I (anokhi) am the Lord your God(Ex20:2). Bar Hutah said, Why is it called aleph?Because it denotes the sum of a thousand, viz. The word which He commanded for a thousand (eleph) generations(Ps. 105:8).
 
Pesikta Rabbati 21
R. Eliezer bar Abina said in the name of R. Aba: During the twenty-six generations [between creation and the giving of Torah the aleph kept raising a cry before the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, Lord of all universes, I am first of all the letters. Yet You did not create the world with me but with the bet. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, Go hence! The entire world, all of it, will be yours. For the whole world and the fullness thereof were created only for the sake of Torah, as is said, If not for My covenant [and for the Torah which is to be studied] day and night, I would not sustain the fixed ways of heaven and earth(Jer. 33:25). Soon I shall give Torah to My children and I shall inaugurate My giving it to them with you I (anokhi)am the Lord your God.
Another comment: Why with an aleph? Bar Husa said, Be­ause the basic meaning of `aleph as a verb is "to teach", The word which He commanded to teach the generation (Ps. 105:8).
R. Simla`i taught: The world was held in great esteem untilthe Torah was given. After the Torah was given, the world`s worth was shown to be relatively trivial. How so? When you take a balance and put six ounces on one side and forty on the other side, which side will outweigh the other? Will not the forty outweigh the six? [Even so] the whole world, all of it, was created in no more than six days, as is said, For in six days tile Lord made heaven and earth(Exod. 20:11), whereas the Torah was given in forty days, And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights(Exod. 34:28), and Moses said, I abode in the Mount forty days and forty nights(Deut. 9:9). Does it not go without saying that forty outweighs six?
R. Eliezer said in the name of R. Berechiah: [If it were not for Torah] the earth would turn into water: Should [the words of Torah] be plucked up, then [dissolution into] strange, cold, flowing waters(Jer. 18:14).
R. Huna said in the name of R. Aha: The earth and all the inhabitants thereof were about to be dissolved; but then because of the I, [the "I" which begins the Ten Commandments and hence stands for Israel`s acceptance of God and the Torah] it stood firm, as the verse concludes, I caused tile pillars of it to stand firm (Ps. 75:4). Long ago the world might have dissolved and disappeared had not Israel stood before Mount Sinai and said, All that the Lord hath said we will do and obey(Exod. 24:7), the world might already have reverted to chaos. And who made the world stand firm? I made the pillars of it stand firm, because of the merit Israel acquired in heeding I am the Lord thy God.