ד׳ בשבט ה׳תשע״ג (January 15, 2013)

Shabbat 104a-b: The Significance of the Hebrew Alphabet

In the course of discussing the prohibition against writing on Shabbat the Gemara quotes a lengthy interpretation of the letters of the alphabet as presented by children who visited the study hall.

Here are samples of the children’s teachings:

said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Young students came today to the study hall and said things the likes of which were not said even in the days of Yehoshua bin Nun. These children who only knew the Hebrew alphabet interpreted the letters homiletically.

Alef beit means learn [elaf] the wisdom [bina] of the Torah.
Gimmel dalet means give to the poor [gemol dalim].
Why is the leg of the gimmel extended toward the dalet? Because it is the manner of one who bestows loving-kindness to pursue the poor. And why is the leg of the dalet extended toward the gimmel? It is so that a poor person will make himself available to him who wants to give him charity. And why does the dalet face away from the gimmel? It is to teach that one should give charity discreetly so that the poor person will not be embarrassed by him.

The details of the shapes of the Hebrew letters gimmel and dalet mentioned by the Gemara in its midrashim are clearly apparent in the script that is used for Torah scrolls, mezuzot,and tefillin [ketav stam].

The Gemara continues with other examples of the children’s interpretation, including:

Kuf: Holy [kadosh], referring to God.
Reish: A wicked person []. Why is the kuf facing away from the reish? This question was phrased euphemistically, as it is the reish that is facing away from the kuf. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am unable look at a wicked person, i.e., the wicked person does not want to look toward God. And why is the crown of the letter kuf turned toward the reish? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: If the wicked person repents his evil ways I will tie a crown for him like My own. And why is the leg of the kuf suspended and not connected to the roof of the letter? Because if the wicked person repents he can enter through this opening if he so desires.

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