#267: Shavuot and the Hebrew Alphabet
Midrash Aseret HaDibbrot
The First Committee of the Hebrew Language, Jerusalem 1912. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is seated, first from the right. Public domain image.
Gimme Some Torah #267
מדרש עשרת הדברות, אוצר מדראשים
There are about one hundred alphabets in the world, and all but the most obscure are supported by the Unicode standard for text. But of all these writing systems, we Jews hold our own Hebrew alphabet to be sacred. According to legend, the universe itself is made from Hebrew letters, also known as Ashurit (Assyrian) as opposed to the Paleo-Canaanite script used before the exile.
Midrash Aseret HaDibbrot is an anthology of rabbinic interpretations of the revelation at Sinai. The midrash that follows is one of my favorites. It anthropomorphizes the letters and describes their role in the Torah’s revelation. This text is written elliptically, so I have used some creative license to fill in the blanks:
We find that before the world was created, parchment skins upon which the Torah is written did not exist because there weren’t any animals yet. So how was the Torah written? It was written on the Holy One’s arm in black fire upon white fire, and God took this Torah, laid it down and looked at it intently. When God desired to create the world with the Hebrew letters, all the letters came before the Holy One, and each one said individually, “Sovereign of the Universe! Please start the Torah and create the world with me!”
First, the tav (ת) approached before the Holy One and said, “Sovereign of the Universe! May it be your will to start the Torah with me as the first letter because Torah starts with a tav. God answered, “I will not do as you ask because you are also the first word of תְרוּמוֹת (terumot), which means fraud.”
Some time later, the shin (ש) appeared before the Holy One and said, “May it be your will to start writing the Torah with me because the Shema starts with a shin.” God replied, “I will not do as you ask because the word שׁוֹחַד (shoḥad), which means bribe begins with a shin. Moreover, a shin does not have legs, and it is not appropriate to start the universe with a letter that has no legs.***
Then all the other letters except for the beit (ב) and the alef (א) came to God with the same request, and they were all rejected as the Torah’s first letter. Then the beit said, “Please start writing the Torah with me, because beit is the first word of בְּרָכָה (berakhah), and your children will use me to bless Your Holy Name, as in what they say to a new baby or a couple under the wedding canopy, “Blessed be they who come in the Name of God!” (בָּרוּךְ הַבָּא בְּשֵׁם ה׳, barukh ha-ba b’shem Hashem.) God said to the beit, “I will do so, I will start the Torah and create the universe with a beit as the first letter, as the Torah says, “In the beginning, God created. . .”
When the alef saw that God wanted to the start the Torah and create the world with the letter beit, it stood to one side and remained quiet until the Holy One summoned it. God said, “Alef, why do you remain quiet, why don’t you talk like the other letters? The alef replied, “Sovereign of the Universe, if all my other fellow letters, who have a sound, did not get chosen, how could I have hope to be chosen, seeing that I have no sound?”
The Holy One said, “Do not trouble yourself, for you are the head and king of all the letters, for I am One, and אֶחָד (eḥad) starts with an alef. So because you humbled yourself, I will magnify you so that you become like a thousand (אֶלֶף, elef) letters.
And then God said to the alef, “Take comfort, for when I reveal the Torah, I will start with you. Therefore, Revelation started with an alef as in the word אָנֹכִי (anokhi), which means “I,” as in “I am Hashem your God.”
And so the world was created from the letters of the Torah, which started with a beit and was revealed to Israel with an alef.
***I realize this part of the midrash could be taken as offensive to those who do not have the use of their legs. In the Torah, a shin is written in such a way that appears to be balanced on a fine point. The midrash’s point is that it looks unstable.
There are lots of bad or unpleasant Hebrew words that start with a beit, so why did God gave the beit a pass?
What do the Sages mean when they say that the universe is created with Hebrew letters? What does this idea say about God’s presence in the world?
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Rabbi Eli Garfinkel is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey. He is the author of The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary.