Sunday, October 06, 2019

A is for Apple, Alef Beth is for Learn Wisdom

In the course of some research the other night, I came across an entry in the Talmud (Shabbath 104a) discussing some of the instructions, lessons, and memory aids that were used in teaching the Hebrew alphabet back in the days of classical Judaism. Seeing that it was both instructive and good-natured, I wanted to reproduce it here as an alphabet chart:

Memory and instruction
Names of letters
Hebrew letters (right to left)
Learn wisdom (alef binah)
Alef, Beth
Show kindness to the poor (Gemol Dallim)

Why is the foot of the Gimmel stretched toward the Daleth? Because it is fitting for the benevolent to run after the poor.
And why is the roof of the Daleth stretched out toward the Gimmel?
Because he (the poor) must make himself available to him.
And why is the face of the Daleth turned away from the Gimmel?
Because he must give to him in secret, lest he be ashamed of him.
Gimmel, Daleth
That is the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He
He, Waw
If you do this, the Holy One, blessed be He, will sustain (Zan) you, be gracious (Hen) to you, show goodness (metib) to you, give you an inheritance (Yerushah), and bind a crown (Kether) on you in the world to come.
Zayyin, Heth, Teth, Yod, Kaf, Lamed
The open Mem and the closed Mem are open teaching (Ma'amar) and closed (esoteric) teaching.
open Mem, closed Mem (final Mem)
The bent Nun and the straight Nun: the faithful (Ne'eman) if bent (humble), will be the faithful, straightened.
bent Nun, straight Nun (final Nun)
Samek, ‘ayyin: support (Semak) the poor (‘aniyyim).
Another interpretation: devise (‘aseh) mnemonics (Simanin) in the Torah and so acquire it.
Samek, ‘ayyin
The bent pe and the straight pe are an open mouth [peh], a closed mouth.
bent Pe and straight Pe (final Pe)
A bent zadde and a straight zadde: the righteous (zaddik) is bent; the righteous is straightened.

But that is identical with the faithful bent, the faithful straightened? The Writ added humility to his humility; so the Torah was given under great submissiveness.
bent Zadde and straight Zadde
Kuf is for Kadosh (holy); Resh for Rasha’ (wicked):

Why is the face of the Kuf averted from, the Resh? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I cannot look at the wicked. And why is the crown of the Kuf turned toward the Resh? The Holy One, blessed be He, saith: If he repents, I will bind a crown on him like Mine. And why is the foot of the Kuf suspended? If he repents, he can enter and be brought in through this.

This supports Resh Lakish, for Resh Lakish said: What is meant by, "Surely he scorns the scorners, But he gives grace unto the lowly?" If one comes to defile himself, he is given an opening; if one comes to cleanse himself, he is helped.
Kuf, Resh
SHin is for SHeker (falsehood); Taw for emeth (truth):

Why are the letters of Sheker close together, while those of ‘emeth are far apart? Falsehood is frequent, truth is rare.

And why does falsehood stand on one foot, while truth has a brick-like foundation? Truth can stand, falsehood cannot stand.

SHin, Taw
I'm curious how far back we could trace the tradition of teachers making alphabet charts, games, or memory aids. After the custom of teachers everywhere, they do not lose the opportunity to have lessons within lessons, where the examples given are on another subject. Learning letters is generally a preparation for other things that will be learned after reading is mastered. Here the teachers lay the groundwork for what they want the students to learn next. While calling attention to the shapes of the letters, they emphasize learning wisdom, God's benevolence, human benevolence, humility, and truth.

If anyone has any use for this, I'm tagging this individual post as Creative Commons. Please bear in mind that the Talmud and its English edition are not mine (Soncino/Judaica Press, though I've modernized it somewhat). It's possible that there have been enough changes (between modernizing and simplifying the language, and original work added in the formatting) that this may possibly be considered a new work; users are encouraged to check into that as needed.

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