By Anna Dangoor, March 2008
Understanding The Alef-Beis
By Dovid Leitner
Understanding the Alef-Beis is a detailed deconstruction of the Hebrew Alphabet, but to really enjoy it you will need to have an open mind and bags of faith at your disposal.
Understanding the Alef-Beis explores the variety of ways the Hebrew alphabet can be used to extract additional meaning and understanding from scriptural texts. Leitner dissects each individual letter, explores the alphabetic structure, and introduces a multitude of different methods for interpreting the letters themselves and their positions within words, using an impressive role-call of well known Rabinnical sources, as well as his own ideas, to explore the topic.
One way additional meaning can be extracted from a text, is using letter transformation - swapping the letters within a word for others in the alphabet according to a given formula. The At-Bash method is one example of this, when the first letter Aleph is swapped for the last Taph, and the second Bet is swapped for the penultimate Shin and so on. With each different method Leitner seeks to reveal new messages and symbolism from a mixture of religious texts.
In the case of At-Bash the letters of the name of this transformation themselves Aleph, Taph, Bet and Shin can be rearranged to form the word Shabbtah – the single Shabbat that must be observed by all Jews in order for the Messiah to come. Leitner explains that the ‘At-Bash structure represents a unification of the Jewish people in their correct observance of the Shabbos’.
But conclusions such as this and most others in the book are entirely interpretive, and I for one was left feeling frustrated at huge leaps in logic, a heavy reliance on symbolism and a complete lack of any sort of systematic approach to applying the methods.
With no fewer than eight other transformation methods (besides At-Bash) detailed in the book, as well as using Gematria (assigning numerical values to each letter), the shapes of letters and their fulfilment (spelling a letter out as a word) to make connections and uncover meanings between texts, one cannot help feeling that with such a pick-and-mix of ways to switch, shuffle break down and connect the letters, it would be possible to find almost any meaning the writer desired. The scientific among you will certainly be tearing your hair out, but perhaps this is missing the point.
If the book is there to provide convincing, water-tight arguments that the symbolism and additional meaning it uncovers are actually intended elements of the texts themselves I remain unconvinced. But the messages it is trying to convey are all very noble ones - ‘it was a precondition at Creation that nuclear power be harnessed for peaceful purposes’ and ‘although (a) king is the most powerful person, he must remember to remain humble,’ being just a couple of examples.
What it actually provides is an insight into the ways in which our scholars throughout the centuries have used the texts as springboards to teach us lessons that they thought we aught to learn.
At the start of the book Leitner briefly touches on the origin of the Alef-Beis itself, and cites Berachos 55a as indicating that the letters of the Alef-Beis were used in creation. He goes on to suggest that the standard Hebrew alphabetic structure was taught by Hashem to Adam haRishon.
This question of when and who created the first alphabet has always been of great interest to my grandfather, Editor of The Scribe, Naim Dangoor, who has often asked the question could Avraham Avinu have invented the alphabet? Perhaps this could explain the profound effect our forefather had, giving birth to two of the world’s major religions.
David Diringer formerly of the University of Cambridge in an article published by the World Jewish Congress asks the questions ‘Was the Alphabet a Hebrew Invention?’ He writes, ‘It has been mentioned that the Early Canaanite inscriptions – some going back to the period of the Patriarchs – may represent the original proto-type of the Alphabet. And, if there is substance in our theory that the twenty-two symbols of the original Alphabet were not pictographic but artificial and geometrical…one is prompted to ask what seems a rather startling question: Did the Second Commandment (Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…) play any part in the invention of the Alphabet?’
Diringer also cites the opinion of Prof Tur-Sinai formerly of the Hebrew University ‘The historic alphabet of twenty-two signs, as first developed and adapted to Hebrew and Aramaic, was created in Israel, for the purposes of Israel’s religious law…(the Canannnitic alphabet) is a creation of Israel’s genius and a witness to the ancient origin of its Torah’ and Diringer goes on to explain that Tur-Sinai ‘bases his attractive theory on certain Talmudic and early Christian explanations of the Hebrew letter-names. He argues that there was a Hebrew age-old tradition of teaching the alphabet-letters as “a didactic verse full of meaning and significance”.’ But Diringer draws the conclusion that although this theory is very beautiful, at the moment the evidence to support it is lacking.
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