Hebrew is unique among languages in that, at least in its classical/religious roots, it is deliberate and “engineered”, meant to convey spiritual, in addition to mere semantic, meaning. There is a tradition to analyze the numerical values of letters, words and phrases and also one to generate meaning from the very grammar which determines structure.
For example, in English we use the word “verb” to mean a word that conveys action. Unlike the word “noun” which both literally means and also describes function as “name”, “verb” merely means “word”, as in verbal or verbose. In Hebrew, and this is an ancient tradition, we call this class of words שם הפועל, Shem HaPoel, literally the name of an action.
פועל, Poel, is also used, prominently by the Maharal of Prague and the Ramchal (Luzatto) as two examples (and it’s worth noting that each were considered the master kabbalists of their respective generations), in contrast to the word כח, Koach (which literally means power or strength) to refer to real, kinetic energy, that is “action”. (כח, Koach, referring to potential, not-yet-actualized , energy).
On the surface, then, Shem HaPoel does mean the “name of an action”. On a deeper, but still authentic, level, this teaches us that until an action really begins to take place, we, as actors, lack a name, a real identity. In other words, our holy language teaches us that we acquire a name, a reputation, only for what we actually do in this world.
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A second example struck me this past Shabbat, because this phrase, הן הם, Hen Hem, literally “both these (f) these (m)”, referring to our limbs, our souls, our breath and our tongues which all join together in praise, appears in the נשמת כל חי, Nishmat Kol Chai, “The Soul of All Life”, prayer, the transition from פסוקי דזימרא, Pesukei d’Zimra, the selection of Psalms with which we prepare ourselves to enter the sections of the Shema and then the Amida (referred to as תפילה, Tefilla, literally prayer, but referring specifically to the standing meditation, the centerpiece of each of three daily prayer services). As the Shefa Tal, the 17th century Kabbalah classic by Rabbi Shabtai Sheftal Horowitz of Prague (and first cousin of the famous Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known for his most famous work, Shnei Luchot HaBrit), points out, the numerical value of these two words, הן and הם equals 100 (50+5=55 and 40+5=45, totaling 100) which is equal to 10 x 10 for the Ten Sefirot (the spiritual forces which combine and interact to generate our universe) each of which contains within it all 10 (10 x 10), a shorthand for the spiritual value of all reality. As I noted, הם is the masculine form, הן the feminine form of “they”. All of which comes to teach us that the full contribution of both the masculine and the feminine are absolutely required to generate complete reality! That this message is, based on the very structure of the Hebrew language, repeated every week in the Shabbat liturgy (and also at every Festival) is, literally awe-inspiring, pointing to the Infinite Wisdom embedded in our Holy Tongue.
Another thought provoking post. Although I love exploring the hidden teachings of Hebrew letters and words I want to gently challenge your opening assertion. Hebrew is not unique among languages with its deliberate and engineering. I am not a linguist but after reading a little book called “Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape” by David Hinton it is clear that Chinese characters are very deliberate and highly engineered.
Again, though I love gematria, atbash and the many other ciphers and creative ways of parsing text our ancestors use (and we continue to use) the truth is these too are not unique to Judaism. More importantly, ultimately these methodologies depend on creativity and subjectivity. If gematria reveals a connection we like, we use it. If not, let’s discard it and try atbash or some other cipher.
Thanks for writing, Howard.
Growing up during the Khrushchev years of the Cold War, I have trouble taking the “we invented it first” attitude seriously. So, I have no trouble retreating from the claim to uniqueness. Actually, it seems unlikely that there was only a single Revelation and that only to us. Beyond my admiration of classic Chinese culture, it doesn’t surprise me that Chinese characters are also intentional.
I think we’re back to our usual debate, whether or not there is God behind the deliberate design of the languages.
All that being said, the real points I wanted to make, and it’s unaffected by the exclusivity issue, are the ethical lessons taught/pointed-to/hinted-at by the Hebrew language.
There is a lot of trivialization of tools like gematria, atbash, etc. Used as a “language game”, you can “prove” anything and, as you said, if you can’t find a gematria, try an atbash or other “cipher”. Built into the traditional approach to these tools is the condition that these “codes” (I hate the word “codes” since it’s been hijacked by the bogus frumery of “Torah Codes” which, indeed, is a matter of search for the “pattern” that yields the result you’re looking for) is that they need “legs”, i.e. that they’re authentically part of the tradition. In other words, that they’ve been revealed much earlier and handed down from generation to generation, ultimately, “halacha of Moshe from Sinai”.
This doesn’t quash innovation, but it does limit it to insights based on previously validated information. The goal is to help us approach ever-closer to a sense of harmony with the Divine, not (as is too often the case) to showcase someone’s cleverness.
Keep ’em coming! I enjoy our dialogue.