The Hebrew word for “letter,” "ot," also means “sign” or “wonder” or “miracle.” For thousands of years, Jewish sages have taught that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph Beit, embody wonderful and miraculous powers. According to the earliest known book on Jewish mysticism, "The Sefer Yetzirah" ("The Book of Creation"), written more than fifteen centuries ago, God formed the entire universe through speaking aloud the twenty-two letters. With the vibration of God’s cosmic utterances, out of the nothingness of silence all things spring to life. “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”

The letters of the Aleph Beit, as the manifestations of God’s speech, are therefore the energetic and vibrational building blocks of creation. They are analogous to physical elements. Just as, for example, an atom of oxygen gas unites with two atoms of hydrogen gas to form a molecule of water, so does one letter combine with another to create new beings. Rabbi Marcia Prager writes, “This perception of Hebrew words and letters as the constituent spiritual elements of existence undergirds most Jewish mystical teaching.” (Prager, Marcia. "The Path of Blessing." New York: Bell Tower, 1998. p. 191.)

The letters are archetypes. Each one expresses a specific primordial power or creative energy. For example, Beit, is the sign of “house.” Mem, is the letter of water and the womb. David Abram puts it this way: “Each letter of the Aleph Beit is assumed by the Kabbalists to have its own personality, its own profound magic, its own way of organizing the whole of existence around itself.” (Abram, David. "The Spell of the Sensuous." New York: Vintage Books, 1997. p. 245.)

The thirteenth-century masterpiece of Jewish mysticism, "The Zohar, the Book of Splendor," says, “For when the world was created, it was the supernal letters that brought into being all the works of the lower world, literally after their pattern. Hence, whoever has a knowledge of them and is observant of them is beloved both on high and below.” (Sperling, Harry and Simon, Maurice, trans. "The Zohar, vol. 2." London: Soncino Press, 1978. p.111.)

For centuries, Jewish mystics and scholars have cultivated knowledge and observance of the Aleph Beit, and a vast folklore and mystical tradition arose regarding the letters. In the thirteenth century, Abraham Abulafia developed practices for meditating on the letters that make up God’s holy names. He taught how to permutate and combine these letters to elicit heightened spiritual states.

Abulafia and other Kabbalists created elaborate theories regarding the role of each letter, its numerical force, and its special place in creation and in forming the words of the Torah.

They believed in the power of the Hebrew letters to affect reality in profound ways. For example, some rabbis and students invoked spells in attempts to create golems, human-like creatures made of clay. The word “spell” indicates the magical powers inherent in the combining of letters. One well-known spell, the incantational phrase “abracadabra,” may stem from the Hebrew, "abra k’adabra," which literally means, “I will create as I speak.”

The power of the letters to manifest as physical objects is reflected in the shared root of the Hebrew words for “word” and “thing,” "dibur" and "davar." Words are things, and things are words made manifest.

In the Torah, the Ten Commandments are not referred to as “Commandments,” but rather aseret ha’debrot, “the Ten Utterances” or the “Ten Sayings.” "The Zohar" describes how God’s speech created the tablets bearing these Ten Utterances: “When these letters came forth, they were all refined, carved precisely, sparkling, flashing. All of Israel saw the letters flying through space in every direction, engraving themselves on the tablets of stone.” (Matt, Daniel, trans. "The Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment." New York: Paulist Press 1983. p. 120.)

Copyright 2008 Richard Seidman

Author's Bio: 

Richard Seidman is author of "The Oracle of Kabbalah, Mystical Teachings of the Hebrew Letters"