Going from letters to words

(For the record: Ramchal discusses the Aleph-Bet on a very esoteric level in Kinat Hashem Tziva’ot “Tseirufei haotiot” and in Pitchei Chochma v’Da’at 30.)

We go now from letters to words, which is to say to intelligible combinations of letters. Now, many early Kabbalistic texts refer to non-intelligible combinations of letters in conjunction with what’s termed “practical Kabbalah” or taken to be “white magic”, but Ramchal and many others steered clear of all that (except when it concerned composing komayot for “medicinal” purposes). And both early and later Kabbalists made reference to non-intelligible terms as illustrations of concepts or as instances of acronyms, gematria, notrikon, atbash, or the like rather than as letter-combination that affect reality. But we won’t discuss any of that.

Understand of course that words can simply be the nouns, verbs, etc. that refer to this and that in heaven and on earth, or they can refer to various Divine names. While the former matter very much, as we’ll soon see, it’s the latter that factor most especially into the Kabbalistic system as we’ll see later.

Chassidic literature focused quite a bit on words as nouns and verbs, most especially the works of R’ Schneur Zalman of Liady and R’ Nachman of Breslov who based their statements on the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

We’re taught that God’s “word is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psalms 119:89). Basing himself on a statement made about this verse in Midrash Tanchuma the Ba’al Shem Tov remarks that the words themselves that comprised God’s remark “let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters” (Genesis 1:6) remain firmly fixed in the heavens to this very day (just as the words God used to create everything else remain in place).

R’ Schneur Zalman expanded upon that and actually said that were those words to depart from the heavens (or anything else they were a part of the creation of), then those things would cease to exist, as their very being is bolstered and fixed by the role that the words that went into their creation play from moment to moment (Sha’ar HaYichud v’Haemunah Ch. 1) [1]. He goes on to make the point there that that’s not only true of things created by the Ten Utterances that went into creation in general; it’s also true of everything, in that the (Hebrew) letters that comprise their names maintain them.

This then is an understanding of letters and words as not mere helpmeets of the Sephirot but as the very power-sources that they use in this world.

Notes:

[1]       See RSZ’s Likkutei Torah, Parshat Achrei Mot; also see Ari’s Eitz Chaim 50:2. 

(c) 2011 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Feel free to contact me at feldman@torah.org

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