Ari on the letters

Ari discusses various aspects of the AlephBet in a number of sections of Eitz Chaim and in various contexts, but he hardly addresses the notion of their overall role in the universe. But he does say this: “(while) all the worlds were created by means of the twenty-two letters in Malchut … The letters Mem, Nun, Tzaddi, Pei and Chof  derived from Zeir Anpin which hovers over it” (Eitz Chaim 5:3), which calls for explanation.

The discerning reader should have raised this objection right away. “Aren’t there twenty-seven letters in the AlephBet, if you include the end-forms?” In explanation, the “end-forms” are those letters that are formed one way when they’re at the beginning or in the middle of a Hebrew word, but are formed another way when they end a word. And, yes, there are in fact twenty-seven letters when those five end-forms are included. And the five of them are the very ones Ari cited at the end of his remark — Mem (which ordinarily appears thusly, מ, but appears thusly ם when an end-form), Nun (נ versus ן), Tzaddi (צ versus ץ), Pei (פ versus ף) and Chof (כ versus ך).

Ari acknowledges that fact and thus offers that “the letters Mem, Nun, Tzaddi, Pei and Chof derived from Zeir Anpin (a Partzuf that is a combination of Chessed, Gevurah, Tipheret, Netzach, Hod and Yesod which all sit over Malchut as we’ll see later on) hovers over” the ordinary “twenty-two letters in Malchut” which sit beneath it, and that the latter are the ones by means of which “all the worlds were created”. Thus we see that the five end-forms are the sources of the twenty-two regular forms. Accordingly, the statement in the Talmud that the five end-forms were instituted by the prophets (Shabbat 104a) should be understood to mean that while their shapes were instituted by the prophets, they existed from the first, even before the rest of the universe.

Ari also offers that while the letters played a role in creation, “the combination of them maintains the world” (Ibid. 5:3), and that the letters are in fact “the essences of the Sephirot” (Ibid. 5:7), i.e., their building-blocks if you will.

We’ll now explore what Ramchal offers here in this section about the letters as well as in his other works.

(c) 2011 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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