The Mystical Dimensions of the Aleph-Bet

Erica L. Schultz

Contents: Physical Potency: The Agency of Creation | Metaphysical Potency | Dimensions of Meaning in the Letters | Bibliography | Other Aleph-Bet Resources Online

Hebrew is the Jewish holy tongue -- held in such reverence that it was long considered too sacred for use in secular contexts. It was reserved for prayer and study, and everyday life used or adapted the language of the surrounding society. Yiddish, in particular, was known as mama-loshen -- "mother's tongue" -- because it was the language used in the home, whereas Hebrew belonged to the exclusively male provenances of synagogue and school (Rosten, 1982, p. 204). Even in this century, Eliezer ben Yehuda's efforts to revive and update the Biblical tongue for the modern State of Israel (O'Brien, 1986) were considered rank apostasy by some, and many ultraorthodox Israeli Jews today still insist on using Yiddish outside the synagogue (Poll, 1980). By contrast, Rav Yitzchak Luria spoke only Hebrew in his everyday life for the same reason -- to increase the holiness of his thoughts (Kaplan, 1990).

Hebrew is the eternal language of Jewish prayer. In the Overview to the ArtScroll siddur, Rabbi Nosson Scherman states that while Jews may pray in any language, they are obligated to understand the words they are reciting if any language other than Hebrew is used. Prayer in Hebrew fulfills the mitzvah even if the one praying does not know the meaning of the words (see Beur Halachah, Orach Chaim 62). Of course, meaningful invocation is preferable to uncomprehending recitation, yet Scherman is careful to point out that this qualification "does not detract a whit from the importance of praying in the Holy Tongue; it merely points up the responsibility to understand the prayers in their original, holiest form" (Scherman, 1984, p. xvi).

Specifically, the Hebrew prayers contain many layers of meaning and allusion which are lost in any effort at translation (Scherman, 1984, p. xv). Moreover, the act of praying in Hebrew transmits some fundamental core of meaning or sanctity, transcending the semantic content denoted by the words.

In fact, in special cases the act retains its merit even if the 'prayers' have no semantic content at all. Rosenberg quotes "somewhat liberally" from the Hasidic text Sefer Likutim Yekarim to say, "If one reads a prayer, and sees the lights within the letters, even if he does not understand the meanings of the words, God approves" (pp. 185-186). There are several variations in Jewish folklore of the devout but unlettered person who prays by offering a hearfelt recitation of the letters of the aleph-bet.

An old Jew found himself in a strange place, and when it was time for him to say mayrev he found that he had lost his prayer book. So he addressed the Lord.... `I will just call out all the letters in the alphabet, and You, please, put them together in the right way." (Rosten, p. 97)
R' Yitzchak Luria, the Holy Arizal, once felt that his prayers during the Days of Awe were particularly efficacious, but the Holy Spirit revealed to him that the prayers of someone else were even more pleasing to God than those of the Arizal. The sage longed to meet this great but unknown tzaddik.... [When he found him, the man said:] "Rabbi, I am unlearned and do not know even the complete Aleph-Beis. I know only from aleph to yud. When I saw everyone praying fervently in the synagogue -- something I could not do -- I recited the first ten letters of the Aleph-Beis and said, 'Please, O Master of the Universe, take my letters and form them into words that will please you.' I repeated this time after time all day long." (Divrei Shalom); Munk, p. 37)

Munk concludes, "The heartfelt prayer of the ignorant villager meant more in heaven than the lofty prayers of the Arizal" (p. 37).

Physical Potency: The Agency of Creation

The Sefer Yetzirah refers to the 22 letters of the aleph-bet most often as otiyot yesod -- "foundation letters." "In the simplest sense this is because it was through the letters of the Hebrew alphabet that the universe was created. The Sefer Yetzirah itself therefore says of the letters, 'With them he depicted all that was formed, and all that would ever be formed' (2:2)" (Kaplan, p. 26). According to Scherman (1984), Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Metzerich, suggested that the letters of the aleph-bet "arouse spiritual forces" in the very fabric of the universe. The letters themselves are agents of creation. One clue supporting this theory is found in the opening passage of the Torah: "Bereishit bara Elokim et ha-shamayim v'et ha-aretz. / In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." A traditional Kabbalistic reading of this passage is, "Bereishit bara Elokim ET [aleph-tav]" -- signifying, in other words, the entire aleph-bet. The primal forces contained in these letters were then used as the instruments of all further creation.

This interpretation is logically consistent with the rest of the account of creation. The first statement, that God created the heavens and the earth, uses the Hebrew verb bara. This verb carries the connotation of divine activity, because it means to create something out of nothing. (Other words for creating are yotzer, "to form," and oseh, "to make," but these suggest making something out of something else; thus, they are also human in scope, not exclusively divine.) The text gives no indication of the process by which this creation occurs, since that is a mystery which only God can know. However, after this first act takes place, each subsequent act of creation is expressed in this format: "And God said, 'Let there be...'; and there was...." Pirkei Avot 5:1 states, "B'asarah ma'amarot nivra ha-olam. / The world was created with ten utterances." God literally spoke each object into existence.

This was a linguistic phenomenon; therefore, it depended on the existence of some kind of language, of which the letters of the aleph-bet were the fundamental units. "The decrees through which God brought creation into being... consisted of words, and these words were formed out of letters. Hence, it was through the letters of the alphabet that the universe was created" (Kaplan, p. 26). Thus, says Scherman (1984), the letters "are, in effect, the raw material of Creation. When God combined them into words, phrases and utterances, they brought about Creation, translating his will into reality" (p. xvi). The Hebrew alphabet we possess, in which the Torah was given to us, is the shadow of that divine language of creation.

How could 22 letters bring about the endless combination of things in the universe? Scherman's analogy (a commonly cited one) is that of the elements, combining in chemical formulae. When we see that the formula of water is H2O, and that of carbon dioxide is CO2, and that of glucose is C6H12O6, we learn something fundamental about those very different substances: the precise composition of each, and more imporantly, how closely interrelated they are, and by what means one may be transformed into the others. Ginsburgh (1991) draws another analogy: "Letters build and enliven reality much as the encoded `letters' of DNA build and define the characteristics of the human body" (p. 6). This comparison is perhaps more apt, since DNA consists of only four "letters" (A, C, G, T), yet their combination -- almost infinitely intricate -- produces the diversity of life on Earth.

Centuries before the periodic table of the elements was discovered, the Kabbalists treated the aleph-bet in very much the same manner. The Sefer Yetzirah (literally "Book of Formation," but usually translated "Creation"), which dates back (at least in oral form) to the seventh century C.E. (Kaplan, p. ix), indicates several methods of permuting the aleph-bet into vast arrays. This is the essential foundation of what was known as "practical Kabbalah": applying the Kabbalistic teachings for magical purposes. Its theoretical basis could be called `metaphysical chemistry.'

Aryeh Kaplan (1990) defines three major branches of Kabbalah: the theoretical posited knowledge (through revelation or deduction) about the structure and nature of the Divine and spiritual realms; the meditative used a variety of methods to reach states of higher consciousness, in an effort to approach the Divine; and the magical was closely related to the meditative; it required the same intense concentration and used it to [attempt to] change or cause physical events. The Sefer Yetzirah, he says, is essentially "a meditative text with strong magical overtones" (pp. ix-x). The language of the text is ambiguous and highly obscure, managing to convey at once the sense both of God's manipulation of the forces of the aleph-bet to create the universe and of instructions for comparable manipulation by the practicing Kabbalist. This is due to the ambiguity in [unvocalized] written Hebrew between the third-person masculine singular past tense and the second-person masculine singular imperative: e.g., chet-kuf-kuf can be interpreted as either chakak = "He engraved," or ch'kak = "Engrave." (Kaplan, p. x) It is also ambiguous whether the instructions are designed to produce literal physical events, or whether the effects described are the perceptions brought about by deep meditation.

However, the Kabbalists pursued these exercises not merely for their practical effects, but for the sake of the hidden knowledge itself. Johnson relates: "In addition to... direct communion with God through mystical states, the esoteric books from the first century onwards poured forth a torrent of information about the deity and Paradise.... if the key were found, secret knowledge could be obtained" (p. 196). The knowledge base underlying the meditative/magical exercises is the system of the ten Sefirot ("Divine Emanations"), which the Sefer Yetzirah treats at some length. Chapter 1 is devoted almost exclusively to the Sefirot, and Chapters 2, 3, and 4 relate the letters to that structure. The theory explores both the `physical' realm -- explaining the methods and system of God's acts of creation -- and the metaphysical -- drawing conclusions about the nature of Ultimate Reality by elucidating structural correspondences between the letters and the spiritual elements represented in the Sefirot. In the next discussion, I will focus on this metaphysical dimension.

Metaphysical Potency

Language, besides being the vehicle of creation, is what distinguishes human beings from all other animals. "Onkelos translates `and man became a living soul' [in Bereishit] as `man became a speaking spirit'" (Ginsburgh, p. 256). Man is the only creation which falls into this category. Language preexisted man, and it is the shared characteristic between God and man -- making us creatures "in God's image," allowing us to approach being more like God. No rational thought can exist unless language, and hence letters, exist first. Thus Kaplan explains the transcendent nature of the meditative aleph-bet:

Ordinary thought is verbal, and hence, consists of words. These words consist of letters. These are not physical letters, but mental, conceptual letters. These conceptual letters, however, are built out of `Voice, Breath, Speech'. Hence, in meditating on these concepts, one is actually contemplating the very roots of thought. (p. 90)

With reference to the Creation, Ginsburgh goes on to explain the significance of delegating the naming of all created things to Adam, the first man: he "was uniquely gifted with the insight (wisdom) to recognize and call every being by its proper name.... Other than man, no created consciousness, even that of the angels above, possessed the ability to call by name" (p. 6). Scherman (1984) concurs:

Adam's first demonstration of greatness came when God asked him to give names to all the creatures of the new universe.... the spiritual forces expressed by those letters, in the formula signified by those unique arrangements of letters and vowels, were translated by God into the nerve, sinew, skin, size, shape and strength of a sturdy ox or a soaring eagle." (p. xvi)

However, this almost suggests that the naming preceded the incarnation. Munk, on the other hand, quotes a tradition that Adam (in his state of perfection) possessed the spiritual insight to perceive the real and correct name by which to express the essence of a thing. After Adam had named all the animals, God said to him, "Now name yourself," and Adam said, "I should be called Adam, because I was made from the earth (adamah)." And God then said, "Now name Me," and Adam said, "You are Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, because you are at once past and present and future."

The Sefer Yetzirah (Note: all the Sefer Yetzirah material in the next five paragraphs is based on Kaplan's 1990 translation and commentary.) divides the letters into three categories: three Mothers, seven Doubles, and twelve Elementals. The Mothers are the letters aleph, mem, and shin; as will be further discussed below, they correspond to the sefirot of Keter (Crown), Chachmah (Wisdom), and Binah (Understanding). The Doubles are the letters which have two sounds, a hard sound (when written with the dagesh) and a soft sound. These are: bet/vet, kaf/khaf, peh/feh (universally distinguished); gimel/jimel, dalet/thalet, tav/sav (distinguished in certain subcultures); and resh -- whose "hard" pronunciation has been completely lost. Its description appears in the Sefer Yetzirah but does not correspond to any known pronounceable sound! The Elementals are the remaining twelve letters, which display numerous correspondences, among them the signs of the zodiac and the tribes of Israel (Kaplan, pp. 102-112). Within the limited scope of this paper, I will focus in detail only on the Mothers and their significance in relation to the Sefirot.

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life Image reproduced from Click for larger view.
The Sefirot are ten levels of "Divine Emanations," a difficult concept which may best be understood as metaphorical constructs for abstract facets of reality. All are equally good and perfect, but there is a distinct hierarchy from "higher" to "lower": the highest, or closest to the Divine nature, being Keter (Crown), and the lowest, or closest to the human, being Malchut (Kingdom). The Sefirot are usually diagrammed in a familiar tree formation -- the kabbalistic Tree of Life (see figure) -- with three columns. Chachmah and Binah (Wisdom and Understanding) are placed on the same level, immediately below Keter, but on opposite sides of the Tree, so that Keter is at once above and precisely between them. This structural placement is critical in terms of its significance for the three Mother letters conceptually associated with them.

The intermediate associations are the elements: Chachma (undifferentiated, nonverbal, `passive' consciousness) is associated with water; Binah (verbal, separate, `active' consciousness), with fire. Keter, poised between them, belongs to the air. Each of the Mother letters is independently associated with one of these elements. The word for "water" is mayim (mem-yud-mem); for "air," avir (aleph-vav-yud-resh); for "fire," esh (aleph-shin). Kaplan explicates this last connection:

Fire is represented by the letter Shin. Shin is the dominant letter in the word Esh, meaning fire. It is joined with the Alef, representing air, because a fire cannot exist without air. The three heads of the Shin also suggest the flames of the fire. The hissing sound of this letter, furthermore, is like the hiss of a flame. The three heads of the Shin are separated, suggesting the general concept of separation [associated with Binah]. (p. 147)

Mem, on the other hand, makes a humming noise which is not only inherently calming (as opposed to the agitating hiss of shin) but strongly associated in itself with deep meditation and the achievement of Chachmah consciousness.

Kaplan goes on to discuss the dialectical nature of these three in Hegelian terms: thesis (shin), antithesis (mem), and synthesis (aleph). This gives rise to a vast multitude of correlations, which I will merely mention here to give an idea of their scope. Shin (fire) is energy, mem (water) is matter, and aleph (air) is the space in which the two forces interact. Shinis a hiss, mem is a hum, and aleph is the silent consonant -- the empty pause that separates the two when spoken. Ultimately, shin is the (active) cause, mem is the (passive) effect, and aleph is their union, the creative process as a whole.

This last designation I find most suggestive in light of the grammatical functions of these three letters, as prefixes to verbs (action words). Shin is "that" or "which," a subordinating conjunction; attaches to a conjugated verb, it connects that verb back to its subject, defining the subject as "that which does something." Mem attaches to a verb root to indicate a passive form: asah (ayin-shin-hey), "to make," becomes ma'aseh -- "that which is made." Aleph is the prefix indicating the first-person singular future tense: thus, a'aseh (aleph-ayin-shin-hey) means "I will do/I will make." Surely this perfectly characterizes the union of "that which does" and "that which is made" -- the creative process as a whole.

Dimensions of Meaning in the Letters

Magical spells and pure theology aside, there is a significant body of literature on the essential meanings contained in the letters of the aleph-bet. The overall lessons of the letters are frequently homiletical in nature: they are used to illustrate general moral, theological, or other philosophical principles.

There are several dimensions of meaning to be considered within the individual letters. The first verse of Sefer Yetzirah states, "U'bara et olamo b'shlosha sfarim: sefer v'sefar v'sipur. / And He created His universe with three books: with text and number and communication" (Kaplan's translation, p. 20). Thus, Kaplan interprets, there are three ways to examine the letters. Sefer, text, is the written letter, the physical shape. Sefar, number, is the numerical value of the letter. And sipur, "telling" or communication, includes both the name of the letter and the sound it represents. (For each letter, certain of these avenues may be richer and more interesting veins of information than the others. Also, individual letters display varying degrees of unity in their thematic characteristics. For example, aleph and bet have highly focused thematic `personalities' across all the dimensions of meaning; kaf and zayin show less consistency of interpretation -- though by the same token might be considered all the more complex and meaning-rich.)

Sefar: Number Symbolism/Gematria

Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value. The alphabetic characters were used as the only numerical system before the advent of Arabic numerals, and they are still used today to index, for instance, chapters of sacred texts or days of the Hebrew months. Aleph through tet are the numbers 1 to 9; yud through tzadi are 10 through 90; and kuf, resh, shin, and tav are 100 through 400.

The "sofit" characters, or final forms of the letters kaf, mem, nun, peh, and tzadi, are usually reckoned with the same numerical values as their regular forms. However, they are also sometimes counted as the numbers 500 through 900. This correspondence brings the aleph-bet full circle -- because the letter representing 1000, "elef," is aleph.

Adding the numerical values of all the letters in a word (or phrase) produces a sum known as that word's gematria. For centuries, Jewish scholars have used these numerical totals to draw general conclusions about the relationship between two concepts based on the mathematical relationship of the gematria of their respective names. This process in general is also known as gematria. There seem to be two primary methods of illustrating by gematria. One is to demonstrate the numerical equivalence of two words, phrases, or concepts, indicating a fundamental conceptual unity between them.

The second is to demonstrate that the sum of two words, phrases, or concepts equals a third, expressing the fundamental relationship between all three. For example:

Sipur: Sound, Name and Pronunciation

The name of each letter generally has at least one literal meaning as a Hebrew word: bet = "house"; vav = "hook"; ayin = "eye"; peh = "mouth". Additionally, each name is connected to a family of several other Hebrew words by changing the vowels applied to its root consonants. Thus, aleph becomes elef = one thousand (as described above), or aluf = master, teacher (Munk, 1983).

Sefer: Shape

The shape of the printed letter is its physical manifestation, its objective existence in the world. The shape can be interpreted in terms of the structural components of the letter, or as a sort of portrait of the thematic character of the letter (or both, where applicable). Thus:


Besides Kaplan's three fields of interpretation, the sequence of the letters within the aleph-bet is also significant. Scherman (1983) points out that Torah teachers have for centuries resisted the idea of rearranging the aleph-bet to make it simpler for children to learn:

Given the fact that the Aleph-Beis predated Creation and is the 'protoplasm' of the universe, the letters and the order are important... the Aleph-Beis was not manufactured by man, so it may not be manipulated by man. (p. 21)

Like the other characteristic dimensions, this sequence information yields homiletical content -- particularly in light of the shape and name information contained in the particular letters. Sometimes the lesson is in which way the letters face in relation to each other.

Other times, it is the order of the letters within the aleph-bet which informs other words with significance. The word for "falsehood," sheker, uses the letters of the alphabetical sequence kuf_resh_shin. "The kuf and resh of sheker remain in alphabetical order, giving a deceptive impression of order, but the shin is moved ahead, to symbolize the distortion of reality in the world of deception (Maharal)" (Munk, p. 211).

Munk writes that the reversed alphabetical order has special meaning in the tradition as well. "In the timeless realm before creation, the letters existed in a state opposite that of the aleph-bet. Then, they began with tav... concluding with aleph" (p. 228). While the aleph-to-tavorder is known as seder ha-yashar ("the straight order"), the tav-to-aleph order is known as seder hehafuch, the reversed system. This association with timeless perfection is put to use in the Shabbat musaf service. Many prayers are composed of 22 lines in aleph-to-tav acrostic sequence (e.g., Ashrei, Aishet Chayil), but Shabbat musaf features one in reverse: "Tikanta Shabbat ratzita karbnoteiha, tzivita perusheiha 'im sidurei n'sacheiha..." This evokes our longing for the return to a state of perfection, the World to Come of which our Shabbat is only a shadow.

Blech, furthermore, goes so far as to state that Hebrew "has two alphabets.... The second requires the wisdom of retrospect: it is the hidden message of the alphabet in reverse, where tav = aleph, shin = bet, resh = gimel, and so on" (p. 36). This perspective explains the device known as at-bash (from aleph/tav - bet/shin). This is a process of transforming one word into another by transposing each of its letters for their at-bash complements. Like gematria, this formal relationship between two words signifies a key thematic connection. One common example of its use: At-bash transforms yud into mem, and hey into tzadi. Therefore, the word mitzvah (mem-tzadi-vav-hey) is a partial at-bash transformation of the Name of God.

The reason for composing prayers of 22 aleph-to-tav lines is that the completed sequence communicates a profound depth of completion.

In the popular idiom, something that is expressed or analyzed in its entirety is said to be covered [me'alef v'ad tav], from aleph to tav. Since the very order of the letters represents profound halachic and philosophic concepts, ... the use of an alphabetic sequence to praise God, or describe a person or concept, denotes totality and perfection." (Munk, p. 34)

The word for "letter" itself, ot, is spelled aleph-vav-tav -- "the first and last letters of the alphabet joined by the sign for 'and.' It could be a contraction for AlphabeT, or it could mean, ideogrammatically, 'first-and-last,' i.e., 'everything'" (Rosenberg, p. 185). However, in this world, nothing we possess is in a true state of total wholeness -- not even the aleph-bet. According to Kushner, the 13th-century text Sefer Ha-Temunah teaches that our present Hebrew alphabet is missing one letter, which will be revealed in the future, and that "every defect in our present universe is mysteriously connected with this unimaginable consonant" (p. 13). Kushner goes on to point out that the tefillin shel rosh bears a shin on each side: the regular three-tongued shin on the right side, but on the left side, a shin with four tongues. "Some suspect that this may be the missing letter whose name and pronunciation must wait for another universe" (p. 14).


The total number of permutations of the 22 letters of the aleph-bet is 22 x 21 x 20 x 19 ... x 3 x 2 x 1, written as 22! ("22 factorial"). It calculates out to 1.12 x 1021 -- about one sextillion. Amazingly enough, as Kaplan informs us, "this is very close to the total number of stars in the observable universe. This universe contains around a hundred billion (1011) galaxies, each one with approximately ten billion (1010) stars. Thus, from the permutations of the alphabet, a name can be formed for every star in the universe. This is in accordance with the teaching that every star has an individual name" (p. 193).

"He counts the number of the stars, He gives them each a name." -- Psalms 147:4


Links: Other Aleph-Bet Resources Online


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