The authors of Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Bahir, and the Zohar, like those who preceded them and from whom they drew their inspiration, were clearly struck by the letters of the Aleph–Bet. They were so enamored of their names, shapes, pronunciations, ordering, and the fact that the letters allowed for whole worlds of ideas and revelations that they could be said to have “toyed” with them in their minds, concentrated acutely upon them, and dwelt on them for long stretches of time much the way we might dwell on nature perhaps, on beauty, on deep emotions, or on the states of our souls. Few of us in modernity, who are so blasé about the fundamentals, would allow ourselves that luxury, but they certainly did, and to a very great extent.
And so we find that Sefer Yetzirah famously begins with reference to the twenty-two “foundational letters” of the Aleph–Bet (1:2) which, along with the ten Sephirot, form the “thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom” (1:1). And we discover that it divides those twenty-two letters into three categories: the three Imot (“mothers”), comprised of the letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin; the seven Kephulot (“doubles”), comprised of the letters Bet, Kaf, Peh, Resh, and Tav; and the twelve Peshutot (“elementals”), comprised of the remaining letters (1:2, 10). And it goes on to explain the roles played by the letters (as well as the Sephirot) and to give insight into the roles they play in creation and in the ongoing governance of the universe.
Sefer Bahir speaks of God having “carved all the letters” and of then fashioning them into “forms” (143), meaning to say into the building-blocks of creation, and it goes about analyzing the shapes and makeup of the letters (as well as the trope, “crowns”, etc. to be discussed below) (17-44).
We’ll next see what the Zohar offers.
(c) 2011 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).