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.
Legend has it that during the High Holy Days, Rabbi Luria felt his prayers to be especially effective. He was a devout man and wanted to please God above all else. But an angel revealed to him that another’s prayers were more potent. Quite intrigued, Rabbi Luria found the man, who seemed a most ordinary villager. But how could this be?
The poor villager was humbled by the rabbi’s question. He bowed his head and explained that he was illiterate. He could not read all the Hebrew alphabet. So, when the Rosh Hashanah services began at his synagogue, he recited the first 10 letters and said, “O Master of the Universe, take my letters and form them into words that will please you.” And he repeated this phrase all day long. Upon hearing the simple man’s account, Rabbi Luria understood that it was the heartfelt prayer that is more exalted than all others.
In eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, the Jewish revivalist movement known as Hasidism (Hasid means pious in Hebrew) extolled Hebrew letters as divine energies. Each represents an important aspect of God’s activity in the universe—and everyday life. So the more we learn about the letters as “God’s building blocks,” the greater our spiritual knowledge.
The charismatic founder, Israel ben Eliezer, emphasized this idea in colorful parables. “Every physical thing contains these twenty-two letters,” he once explained, “with which the world and everything in it are revealed.” In Hasidic legend, he was known to enter his attic alone at night, emphatically warning to be left undisturbed. Nobody knew exactly what holy rituals he was performing there. Once, at midnight, an impetuous disciple managed to peek inside the saintly leader’s chambers, and saw him inscribing letters so rapidly they seemed to be alive. Around him swirled angels in dazzling light. If not for Israel ben Eliezer’s quick intervention, it is said, the disciple would have been permanently blinded by their awesome radiance.
Today, the ancient Hebrew alphabet continues to inspire people around the globe. As a licensed psychologist, I’ve used Jewish meditation in my work, using the Hebrew alphabet as a valuable tool for patients seeking greater stability, comfort, and fulfillment.
Since each letter has its own unique meaning, we can focus on the one whose essence presents a personal challenge in everyday life. For example, the letter Zayin (which also represents the number seven) is traditionally linked with the Sabbath, and more broadly, with time and necessary rest for rejuvenation. So, if a patient complains that she’s feeling stressed—especially because of time pressures—then I suggest meditation on Zayin. Drawing the letter with pen-and-ink or color markers, and asking God for peace of mind, will help turn time into a friend, not an enemy.
The second letter, Beit, begins the Hebrew Bible with the word Beresheit (“In the beginning”). Resembling an enclosure, it is traditionally associated with home and blessing, for Beit starts both words. Patients feeling uprooted or homesick benefit especially by meditating on this letter. It holds God’s promise that he is present with us in our earthly homes.
Next-to-last Shin is among my favorite letters (yes, the rabbis say it’s okay to have favorites). Traditionally seen as a ship gently sailing on the sea, it begins the Hebrew words for peace (shalom) and joy (simcha). Symbolizing our soul’s voyage in this world, Shin provides a wonderful image to contemplate when I’m feeling drained and need to be uplifted.
In Jewish tradition, the Hebrew alphabet not only fills our prayer book, but also gives us a way to prepare for prayer itself—our dialogue with God. The Hasidic founders taught that meditation on the letters frees us from daily worries, trivialities and distractions so that we may better experience God’s presence when we pray. It’s eminently fitting that, as divine emissaries between this world and paradise, the angels brought humanity this gift. As Israel ben Eliezer aptly declared, “In every letter, there are worlds, souls, and divinities. Include your soul with them, and become ever wiser.”