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.
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."
to view enlarged
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.
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."
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
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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.
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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
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]
JT Yoma 7 [back]
Symbols: Symbols in Jewish Art and Tradition,
by Ida Huberman. Modan Publishers, 1996.