נגילה ונשמחה בך, Nagila ve’nismeha bakh, Let us rejoice and delight in you. [Song of Songs 1.4]. Said Rabbi Yitzhak: “let us rejoice bakh [ב”ך] in the כ”ב, or 22 letters of the alphabet in which the Torah is written.” [Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabbah].
Many ancient Jewish texts – like the well-known Psalm 145, or “Ashrei” – were composed as alphabetical acrostics. Presumably writing this way was a practical aid to memory. Ultimately, even beyond mnemonics, the literary form became beloved for what it implied about the power of the Hebrew letters themselves.
A common theme in esoteric Jewish lore is that universe was created with the infinite potential inherent in the letters themselves. For instance, the artisan Betzalel was capable of creating the Mishkan [tabernacle] “because he knew how to combine the letters with which heaven and earth were created [Berakhot 55a].”
Within Yotzer HaMe’orot [“Who creates lights”] – the first blessing before the morning Shema – there is an alphabetical acrostic poem. On Shabbat, it is El Adon, a comparatively lengthy song with five or six words per line. On weekdays we say the much shorter א’ל ברוך גדול דעה, El Barukh … “Blessed God, Great in Consciousness…” with one word for each letter in the alphabet.
Classical siddur commentators, like R. David Abudraham [13th c., Spain], associate this morning acrostic with the concept of the creation through letters. As a spiritual motif, this trope suggests that God’s world is composed of units of meaning. Everything that exists speaks to you. Everything is a word, disclosing its meaning. Physics tells us that the world is composed of atoms and molecules; religious physics tells us that the atoms are letters and the molecules are words.
When I daven this short paragraph, with each word I imagine that I summon up to my consciousness all the alefs, every bet, each gimmel, dalet, hey … that compose the world. I try to imagine each letter sparkling visibly within physical creation. That’s not a wall; it’s a weave of words! I try to learn how to read the world as a book, inscribed with divine significance. If you think of the world that way, as a garment of letters, you cannot regard anything as meaningless.
The Jewish mystical classic, the Zohar, can sometimes seem hallucinogenic. One wonders whether its authors – like other mystical masters – did not ingest some special substances to encourage their enlightenment. When I daven the El Barukh I call to mind a beautiful and trippy Zoharic passage [2.130b, Matt ed. 5.216]: “Here is a mystery of the fathomers: Those who wish to set out on a journey should rise before dawn and gaze toward the east. They will see a vision of letters striking the sky, one ascending, another descending. These are the sparkling of the letters with which heaven and earth were created.” My small meditation for this paragraph is try to see the Hebrew letters dancing across reality, making the world into words.
Image by Shoshanna Bauer.