to read the Hebrew letters became a symbolic act in many a Jewish elementary
school throughout the Jewish world an introduction
of the child into the world of religious learning. During the Middle Ages,
one of the ceremonies marking this initiation included the custom of writing
the letters of the alphabet on a slate and covering them with honey; the
child then licked the slate with his tongue so that the words of the Scriptures
might be as sweet as honey.
following noteworthy Talmudic passage,
however, informs us how young Jewish children were taught the Hebrew alphabet
in a much earlier period, during rabbinic times.
assist the memory and to make the task of learning more attractive, words
were associated with the letters; but most important of all, the alphabet
was employed as a medium of religious and ethical instruction. The following
lesson deserves to be given in its entirety.
It is related
that children now come into the House of Study who recite things the
like of which was not even said even the days of Joshua the son of Nun.
and bet ()
are the initials of elaph binah (),
meaning "Gain understanding."
and daled ()
are the initials of gemol dalim, meaning: "Be benevolent
to the poor."
is the foot of gimmel turned towards daled? Because it
is the way of the benevolent to run after the poor.
Why is the foot of daled turned towards gimmel? To indicate
that the poor person reaches out to his helper.
Why is the face of daled turned away from gimmel? To teach
that charity should be performed in secret so as not to shame the recipient.
and vav ()
signify the name of the Holy One, blessed be He.
Zayin, khet, tet, yod, kof, lamed ():
"If you act in this manner (toward the poor), the Holy One blessed
be He (zan otha, han otha, meitiv leha, v'noten leha yerusha, v'kosher
otha keter l'olam haba) will sustain you and be gracious to you,
benefit you, give you an inheritance, and bind a crown upon you in the
World to come.
is an open mem and a closed mem (),
ma'amar patuah, ma'amar satum ()
denoting that certain doctrines are open to reason and others closed.
There is a curved nun and a straight nun (),
hinting that if one is faithful to God when bent (by adversity), he
will be faithful in normal times: ne'eman kafuf, ne'eman pashut ().
Sameh and ayin ()
provide two words, semoh aniyim ()
meaning "support the poor." There is a curved peh and
a straight peh ()
peh patuah, peh satum ()
pointing to an open mouth and a closed mouth.
is a curved zadi and a straight zadi (),
meaning that if one is righteous when bent (by adversity), he will be
righteous in normal times: .
is the first letter of kadosh (),
holy, and resh ()
is the first letter of rasha' (),
wicked. Why does kof ()
turn its face away from resh ()
? The Holy One, blessed be He, says, "I cannot look upon the wicked."
Why is the foot of kof ()
turned towards resh ()?
The Holy One, blessed be He, says, "If the wicked repent, I will
place a crown upon him like My own." Why does the leg of kof
hang detached? If the wicked repent he can enter through the opening,
and so find himself within (Hakadosh Baruh Hu'), the Holy One.
is the initial of sheker (),
falsehood, and tav ()
the final letter of emet (),
truth. Why does the word for "falsehood"
consist of three consecutive letters of the alphabet, while the word
for "truth," emet (),
consists of letters taken from the beginning, middle and end of the
alphabet? Because falsehood is common, truth uncommon. And why does
the word for falsehood rest on one point while the word for truth has
a firm foundation? To teach that truth stands but falsehood cannot.
Baba Batra 21a [back]
 Maaseh Roke'ah; Mahzor Vitry, ed. S. Hurwitz,
 BT Shabbat 104a [back]
Everyman's Talmud: The Major Teachings of the Rabbinic Sages
by Abraham Cohen. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.