[1]

ואותיות אלו חן נצבות לעולם בתוך רקיע השמים להחיותם

These very letters are clothed forever in all the heavens to give them life. [2] 

Letters of Light
by
Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin
Sichos in English Publications
© 1994
ISBN 1-8814-0074-3  

review by Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW

Science teaches that everything is made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms, which are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which are themselves made up of “sub-atomic” waves and particles — quarks, leptons, bosons, and so on.  

It’s breathtakingly comprehensive and automatic. Utterly mechanical. Utterly impersonal. 

Our interaction with such a universe can only be what Martin Buber calls “I-it.” We can live in it, but we’ll always feel separated from it.

The Besht states instead that the subtlest building blocks of creation are the sounds of the Hebrew aleph-bet ever being spoken by G-d. Rather than imper-sonal forces, waves, or particles, they’re miraculous revelations of Divine Life forever expressing itself through these sounds, creating everything; filling everything created at every moment. Were it  ever to stop, everything we know would disappear instantly.

Our interaction with creation as the Besht describes it is thus always “personal;” what Buber calls “I-you,” in which “you” is G-d. [3]

We not only live in the universe the Besht describes; we are in intimate union with it. The same Divine Life that’s proclaiming it all into existence through the Hebrew letters, is also perpetually doing so to us and within us. We share our Divine Essence with all that is.

The Alter Rebbe tells us further that this is a major theme for “hitbonenut” — (Jewish) contemplation, and the very basis of “emunah/faith,” according to the Besht. [4]

Each Hebrew letter, then, far more than being only an abstract symbol associated with a sound, is “Torah”  itself; filled with infinite implications and holiness.

ChaBaD-based Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin has taken this as his starting point. 

He  says that Hebrew letters (each a consonant) possess 6 features:
Design” (the form of the letter and the strokes necessary to create it);
Gematria” (its numerical value and the deeper truths it uncovers);
Meaning” (its “name” and what that suggests);
Nekudos” (or “nekudot;” the vowel markings associated with its pronunci-ation);
Crowns” (related to how it’s written);
Cantillation” (the musical notes with which it’s sung when Torah is read publicly). 

This book focuses on the first 4. Rabbi Raskin systematically discusses each letter with regard to its “design,” “gematria” and “meaning.” The “nekudos/ nekudot” are similarly discussed in a separate section. His clear, consis-tent discussion allows us to compare one letter/vowel with another and to see the uniqueness in each.  He goes more into the final two (“crowns” and “cantillation”) in a later book, “By Divine Design,” which I reviewed previously. [5] (In fact, “Letters of Light” should be read before “By Divine Design,” to fully appreciate the rabbi’s discussion.)   

He rightly notes that education in English (and most other languages) teaches only the shapes of letters and their associated sounds, for a child to be able to pronounce what’s written or printed (“decoding”). Nothing’s taught about why the letters are shaped as they are. Even if it were, it would have no impact on our  interpretation of English-language literature (including English translations of Jewish scripture).

It therefore strongly suggests that lore about Hebrew letters and vowels (one example of which can be found in the Talmud; Shabbat 104a) should be part of a standard Jewish education for children.  It could also be a great theme for Adult Education — even for those who have completed a “Crash Course in Reading Hebrew” or more advanced learning. It would also be an area of special interest to artists doing Hebrew calligraphy and design, adding deeper import and kavannah to each stroke. 

Perhaps it could even become customary on the holiday of Sukkot for children (nu? Why not adults?) to make designs of the letters and vowels, hang them in a sukkah, and, using Rabbi Raskin’s books, to make story-telling and teaching about them in there a regular program.

His singular familiarity with ChaBaD teachings — especially (but not exclusively) those of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l — is an invaluable resource in itself.

Rabbi Raskin does further service in providing excellent citations as to his sources. Anyone who wants to know more about Judaism surely wants to know where to look! Among other sources, he cites “The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet,” [6] which makes an excellent companion volume to Rabbi Raskin’s own books. [7] [8]

“Letters of Light” is an important educational and cultural resource for anyone who wants a deeper spiritual understanding of the Hebrew aleph-bet.

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[1] © 2011 by Rabbi Eli Mallon. All rights preserved.
[2] abbreviated from Tanya, p. 287 (Sha’ar Ha’Yichud v’Ha-Emunah). Other early Hasidic teachers quote this teaching of the Besht’s, too. In the Tz’va’at Ha-Rivash #108, the Besht also teaches that G-d is in the letters of the prayers we say. Thus, G-d speaks “10 ‘Utterances’  [m’am’or’ot],” made up of the Hebrew aleph-bet, to bring all creation into existence, while remaining within those letters to make the process of creation continuous and perpetual.
[3] In modern English, “you” is used for singular or plural; for “intimate” (as with someone we love) or formal (as when addressing an elected official). In German (Buber’s original language), the “intimate” form of “you” is “du;” the formal form is “Sie.” The original German title of “I and Thou” was “Ich und du.” Buber used the “intimate” form for referring to G-d, much as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditschev did in his song, “A Dudele.”  It captures a sense of loving intimacy. 
[4] In fact, the aleph-bet as the “building blocks of creation” long predates the Besht, going back to the era of the Talmud and Midrash and before. The Besht’s special emphases seem to be: a) The 10 Hebrew “Creation phrases” and their letters are being “spoken” by G-d perpetually, and b) G-d remains within the letters themselves, and therefore within everything created with the letters.
[5] http://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/book-review-by-divine-design/
[6] Munk, Rabbi Michael L.; The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet; Art Scroll/Mesorah Publications; © 1983
[7] I also recommend the following: “Understanding the Alef-Beis” by Dovid Leitner; Feldheim Publishers, © 2007 and “Hebrew: The Eternal Language” by William Chomsky (historical/linguistic study); Jewish Publication Society, © 1937
[8] see also http://www.viewart.com/alephbet.html, a creative display of the Hebrew letters originally shown at Yeshiva University Museum.
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