The Importance of the Word in Judaism
First Published: 2000-06-15
Last Modified: 2001-11-07
In Jewish culture, the word is not simply a visual representation of an idea. In Jewish society, words have power, holiness, and even a life of their own, especially the Word of God. A prayer book is kissed out of respect when picked up, if it should fall to the floor; worn out Torahs are given a burial. The genizah is a repository for retired, mutilated, and fragmentary books and manuscripts which cannot be destroyed, simply because they contain the Name of God. The very Hebrew script itself is sanctified by virtue of being the holy tongue.
Rules For Books and Writing
Rabbi Judah he-Hasid's book Sefer Hasidim (The Book of the Pious) contains many references as to how scribes should behave and how books should be treated: only fresh ink should be used to write God's Name, not the leftover ink on a quill from the last word written. Quills which have written the Name should not be discared on the floor. An inkpot and books should not be carried together when being moved. Lend books to the poor and even to your enemy, so that the Torah might be studied. Never use religious books as collateral on a loan. And so on.
Some Kabbalists theorized that the entire universe was created from the Hebrew alphabet, and that everything could be broken down into Hebrew letters, much as we analyze things in terms of atoms or people in terms of genetics.
Words and Letters Are Alive
The Torah and the Hebrew alphabet are often discussed in terms of being individual, living entities. In Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives From Classical Hebrew Literature, David Stern and Mark Mirsky present a translation of a fascinating petihta (sermon) for the Book of Lamentations:
God has decided that He should take leave of His dwelling-place (the Temple in Jerusalem) so that it can be destroyed by Israel's enemies, as punishment for Israel's sins. The various angels andthe souls of the patriarchs appear in the Heavenly Court, mourning. Abraham the patriarch asks God why He has made this decision. God replies, "Your children [descendants] sinned by transgressing against the entire Torah, against all twenty-two letters of the alphabet, of which the Torah is composed."
Abraham replies, "Master of the Universe! Who will offer testimony against Israel that they transgressed against Your Torah?"
God calls the Torah as a witness to testify against Israel. Referring to the Torah as "my daughter", Abraham reminds her that of all the people of the world, only his descendants accepted her. When he asks if, keeping that in mind, she would still testify against them on the day of their greatest calamity, "she stepped to the side and did not testify against them."
The letters of the alphabet are then called, and each steps forward in turn to testify against Israel. But Abraham reminds each, by quoting a Torah verse which begins with that particular letter, of something which testifies to Israel's dedication. After Abraham almost shames the first three letters into silence, as he did with the Torah, the whole alphabet steps aside and will not testify. (Paraphrase of Stern and Mirsky, ed., Jewish Publication Society, 1990.)
Torah As A Living Entity
The Torah (the five books of Moses, Genesis through Dueteronomy) therefore moves beyond existing as a holy book. It is a divine concept, an entity, an organism, which comes to humanity in the form of a narrative which anyone can read and follow. But to the Kabbalists this is a sort of disguise, or the first of many doors leading to the center of a palace where the king (that is, God) sits. For the centuries the rabbinate and the mystics have interpreted and debated as they sought to discover the "infinite meaning of the divine word"; that is, to understand the secrets which were obscured when the Torah moved from divine organism to a restricted physical entity.
Of this attitude, Gershom Scholem wrote:
The secret world of the godhead is a world of language, a world of divine names that unfold in accordance with a law of their own. The elements of the divine language appear as the letters of the Holy Scriptures. Letters and names are not only conventional means of communication. They are far more. Each one of them represents a concentration of energy and expresses a wealth of meaning which cannot be translated, or not fully at least, into human language. When the Kabbalists...speak of divine names and letters, they necessarily operate with the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, in which the Torah is written, oras they would have said, in which its secret essence was made communicable.
Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, 1965, p. 36.
Words Have Power
Various combinations of the letters in God's Holy Name as it appears in the Torah were believed to hold power, and there was a belief that the Torah was, in its entirety, the Divine Name of God Himself. It was also believed that God had purposely given humanity the chapters of the Torah out of order, because, if the text were read in the correct order, mortals would be able to work miracles and raise the dead. The Jewish people's care of and with the written word can perhaps best be seen in the writings of Rabbi Meir (second century), who was a Torah scribe: "[Rabbi Ishmael] said to me: My son, be careful in your work, for it is the work of God; lest by omitting one letter or adding one letter the whole world could be destroyed."
It is not surprising then that words, passages, Names of God, and prayers were key elements in both theoretical and practical Kabbalah. We often think of a magician or shaman using various "ingredients" in their workdolls, hair, runes, a sacrifice, etc.but the practical Kabbalist used mostly (but not exclusively) words.
Once a mastery of Names and verses had been achieved, the Tzaddik or Ba'al ShemTov could apply them to several "real world" or popular applications: amulet-making, the creation of golems, "The Shortening of the Way", and exorcism, all of which are discussed throughout this site.
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:
Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation). Weiser Books, 1997. Full Listing »
Hoffman, Edward. Hebrew Alphabet, The: A Mystical Journey. Chronicle Books, 1998. Full Listing »
Kushner, Rabbi Lawrence. Sefer Otiyot, The Book of Letters: A Mystical Aleph-Bait. Jewish Lights Publishing, 2nd edition, 1990. Full Listing »
Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. Shocken Books, 1965. Full Listing »
Trachtenburg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition. Atheneum, 1987. Full Listing »
For more titles on this and other topics, you may also wish to browse my annotated biblography for listings of all of my source texts, including descriptions and brief reviews.