Jewish tradition has always held the letter and the printed word in high esteem. The work of the scribes was considered sacred. Copying a Torah scroll – or, for that matter, the writing of a single letter in the Torah – in the fulfillment of a divine commandment. The Hebrew scribe was admonished to take painstaking care in plying his trade; any deviation was regarded as detracting from the sacred integrity of the Torah. The apprehension and wariness in copying out the letters of the Torah reflect a reverence for both the Torah, both as the existential core of Judaism, and as a symbol which often took on cosmic dimension.

This symbolism attached to the letters themselves. Different Scriptural interpretations and homilies attribute independent properties to the letters and stressed their role in creation. The Kabbalists even regarded the letters as a tool wielded by the Creator: "For when the Holy One, Blessed be He, resolved to create the world, the letters had not yet been given meaning. For two thousand years before He created the world, He had looked at them and amused Himself with them, and when He decided to create the world, they all appeared before Him, starting with the last." [1]

Click to view enlarged

This account from the Zohar, a major work of Jewish mysticism, goes on to describe how each of the letters appears before the Creator, asking Him to use it as the means of creating the universe. When all is said and done, the second letter, bet, is chosen. The opening word in Genesis is Bereshit, which begins with a bet; the letter bet does, in fact, launch the act of Creation.

The special and symbolic status of the letters in Jewish culture affected their use in art. One passage refers to Bezalel, the first Jewish artist mentioned in the Torah: "Bezalel knew how to join together the letters that had been used to create Heaven and earth."[2] Jewish tradition holds that the shrine which Bezalel the artist was commanded to create was a cosmic symbol. According to the mystical school of thought in Judaism, it represents the microcosm. The view that the elements of the harmonious universe are based on the twenty-two Hebrew letters gained a following among Kabbalists during the Middle Ages. The letters came to be regarded as increasingly symbolic and were often shaped like the signs of the zodiac, the months or parts of the body.

Click to view enlarged

Thus, the symbolism attributed to the Hebrew letters worked its way into Jewish art and influenced the way in which the letters were shaped and embellished, as well as their prominence in the different art forms. Two main styles, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, evolved in the design of the alphabetic characters. These are related to the style of the respective cultures around them and to the writing implement used – the stylus or quill.

Click to view enlarged

The illuminators of the medieval Hebrew manuscripts embellished the letters, sometimes even incorporating animals or botanical motifs within them. The first words in the paragraph were often enlarged and ornamented. The practice of adding elements of flora and fauna to the Hebrew letters was a means of combining the description of God's creatures and the letters which were instrumental in the act of creation. In Jewish art, the combination was manifested in the development of micrographics as well. Micrography involved the use of shapes like cosmic circles, rosettes, lions and, later, human figures in miniature writing, making it possible to strike an organic merger between the words and letters and their meanings, on the one hand, and the shapes and symbols on the other. This type of craftsmanship, which gained ground during the Middle Ages, has survived to the present


[1] The Wisdom of the Zohar, texts from the Book of Splendor arranged and translated into Hebrew by F. Lachover, J. Tishby, vol. 1, p. 392 [back]

[2] JT Yoma 7 [back]

Living Symbols: Symbols in Jewish Art and Tradition, by Ida Huberman. Modan Publishers, 1996.

LETTERS Table of Contents




Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend