The letters, which for millennia have served as an impetus to the Jewish creative process, are in Jewish legend intimately associated with the very act of Creation. The Midrash relates that when God was about to create the world, He sought out the aid of assistants. The Torah came forward to offer the help of "twenty-two laborers," the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet that in their various combinations comprise the text of the Holy Writ. Each letter then stepped forth to plead its particular preeminence. The only letter that refrained was the modest aleph. Its humility was later rewarded, when it was accorded the honor of beginning the Ten Commandments.

 Aleph-Beth (Alphabet)

Every single letter of the Torah is considered so important that he who corrects even one letter in a Torah scroll is regarded by tradition as though he had written that Torah himself. Thus, there developed the custom whereby each Jew symbolically fulfills the mitzvah (commandment) of writing a scroll. The sofer (scribe) writes only the outlines of the letters at the beginning and at the end. These letters are then completed in a ceremony known as siyyum ha-Torah (the completion of the Torah). The honor is bestowed on those present to ink in the outlined letters.

Although one may touch the parchment of the Torah while writing the letters, ordinarily it is forbidden to touch a Torah scroll with one's fingers. Instead, a ceremonial object known as a yad (hand) is used to point to the words while reading from the Torah. The yad is usually made of silver, in the form of a hand with a pointed index finger.

Reflections on creating the pictograph for Aleph

The two most difficult letters were aleph and vav. A word which had been originally chosen for aleph was echad (one). Echad appealed to me since it evoked the idea of the Oneness of God. However, this created the problem of illustrating the oneness of God without violating the Second Commandment.... I thought a possible solution might be a drawing of a mezuzah since it encloses the verses from Deuteronomy which proclaims God's Oneness. According to Maimonides, "But the commandment of the mezuzah, man is reminded, when entering or departing, of God's Oneness, and is stirred into love for Him."

Furthermore each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical equivalent. Since the numerical equivalent of aleph is one, this also attracted me to the word echad. In the end, echad was rejected because of the difficulty with the Second Commandment. Besides, the drawing of a mezuzah was just not that interesting. So I chose alephTbet. It offered more interesting artistic opportunities and was closer to my original conception than any other possibility.


Dr. Mark Podwal is the author and illustrator of numerous books, including A Book of Hebrew Letters, A Jewish Bestiary, and Freud's da Vinci. His work is in the collections of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, the Jewish Museum (NY) and the National Gallery in Prague. His drawings and watercolors are presented by Forum Gallery, New York.



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