In the Jewish tradition, Hebrew has always been considered to be a holy language. This essay traces the development of Hebrew and its roots as a holy language in Jewish thought. The first part of this essay covers the history of the Hebrew letters and their place in Rabbinic thought. This is Part I of a two-part article; the second part of this essay looks at the role Hebrew letters play in Jewish mysticism. Reprinted with permission from The Hebrew Alphabet: A Mystical Journey (Chronicle Books).
Judaism has always regarded Hebrew as a sacred language, the medium of divine communication. For millennia, its sages and mystics have taught that the letters are no ordinary expression. Indeed, the very word for “letter” in Hebrew–Ot–means sign or wonder; that is, a heavenly revelation. It has therefore long been advised: The more we learn about the letters through both study and meditation, the greater becomes our inner development.
The Hebrew alphabet’s origins lie shrouded in the mists of antiquity. Today, scholars believe that a version known as North Semitic arose among northwest Palestine and Syria’s inhabitants more than 3,500 years ago and established permanently the phonetic sound, numerical value, and order of what initially became Early Hebrew. Already used in the time of King Solomon, this was the original script of the Bible.
When–led by Ezra the Scribe in approximately the fifth century B.C.E.–the Jewish people returned from Babylonian Exile, the Square Script, a distinctive descendent from the Jewish Aramaic used in the Holy Land, became the preferred language. It was eventually adopted officially for the writing of Torah scrolls. Yet, Early Hebrew never entirely vanished and was used by the second-century Jewish revolutionary Bar Kochba on his coins in defying Roman rule. Nevertheless, for nearly 2,000 years, the Square Script has been basic to Judaism, and relied upon by our greatest sages for prayer, sacred study, and meditation.
22 Letters, No Vowels
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