Judaism has always regarded Hebrew as a sacred language. According to tradition, the angels themselves brought it to humans as a divine gift filled with holy mysteries. Indeed, the very word for "letter" in Hebrew—Ot—also means sign or wonder: that is, a heavenly revelation. The sages have long declared that the more we learn about the letters through both study and meditation, the greater will be our blessings from God.
In historical lore known as the Midrash, Jewish veneration for the Hebrew letters was fervent. The early rabbis viewed the letters as having their own existence in paradise and taught that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, he saw God designing crowns for the individual letters.
In traditional Jewish thought, each letter—its name, pictorial form, numerical equivalent, and respective position in the alphabet—is ordained by God. Stemming from this precept, Jewish law for millennia has decreed that every letter of a Torah scroll must be perfect, or else the entire scroll cannot be used. Not a fragment of a single letter may be omitted or distorted; nor may an individual character be compromised by contact with any other letter. Every word must be spelled correctly; one extra, transposed or missing letter invalidates the whole scroll. This religious law itself can be seen to impart a higher lesson: Each person, like each letter of the Torah, has a unique purpose in the divine plan.
The Hebrew language is made up of 22 letters, five of which are known as double (or “mother”) letters. These five letters—Mem, Kaf, Nun, Pei and Tzadi—have two distinct forms: One form is used in the beginning or middle of a word, the other form is used when the letter falls at a word’s end. These letters were originally known only to the righteous, such as Abraham, and later to Moses, Joshua, and the Seventy Elders of Israel. They brought the knowledge of these special Hebrew letters to the Holy Land, where through the prophets, the entire Jewish people came to use them.
Dating from at least the fifth century, the first Jewish mystical text, known as the Book of Formation, saw the Hebrew alphabet as a manifestation of celestial patterns of energy. “Twenty-two foundation letters,” this manuscript declares. “God ordained them, God hewed them, God combined them. God weighed them, God interchanged them. And God created with them the whole creation and everything to be created in the future.”
Abraham Abulafia (c. 1240-1292) ranks among the most important Jewish mystics. He created a meditative system based on the Hebrew alphabet. Traveling through his native Spain, as well as Italy and Greece, he attracted many followers with his method, which he called “knowing God through the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.”
Among his writings on angels and prayer, Abulafia declared: “Look at these holy letters with truth and belief. It will awaken your heart to thoughts of godly and prophetic images.” He specifically advised: “Cleanse your body, choose a special place where none will hear you, and remain altogether by yourself in isolation. Sit in one place in a room...it is best to begin by night.”
With Abulafia’s method, the practitioner “begins to combine letters, a few or many, reversing them and rolling them around rapidly, until one’s heart feels warm.” Those who carefully follow this technique, Abulafia assured, will eventually experience “an abundance of saintly spirit, wisdom, understanding, good counsel and knowledge. The spirit of the Lord will rest upon them.” He added that angels would become the teachers of those who practiced his method with special devotion.
In the centuries following Abulafia’s influential life, many sages extolled the spiritual power of the Hebrew alphabet. In the sixteenth-century Holy Land, Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that by properly focusing the mind, people could use the letters to draw closer to God. To this end, he developed complex methods of visualization involving the letters.