(Sung According To the Children’s Tune: A B C D E F G (pause)
H I J K LMNOP (pause) QRS TUV WX Y & Z)
For English speakers, learning the alphabet was a fairly easy-to-memorize straightforward affair. The tune helped considerably! Who, even in late-middle-age, or even as an elderly person doesn’t remember it?
(If only a Talmudic argument were so simple to play back to the Rebbi!)
I have often mentioned that Bialik had said that if you want to write poetry you had to love words. Since I am a poet, I have taken his advice seriously and have been known to read dictionaries. Actually, I don’t start with A or Aleph or Alpha, and read every word, but rather leaf through again and again until my eye strikes something of interest. I have been known to jokingly tell a bit of a lie and say I do read through, and that if they are doing Greek, not to miss Gamma – it is loaded with good stuff.
Years ago I discovered a passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 104a) that goes through the entire Hebrew alphabet and adds brief comments carrying moral or religious meanings all pointing to some advice on living the good Jewish life. It has even been made into a gorgeous calligraphed poster-sized print which I own and hangs prominently on my wall.
It is a very striking pedagogical passage, lengthy, covering a good portion of the page. Since I ran across it again this morning, I began to wonder why it hasn’t been part of my text-teaching sessions. I used to teach the first four letters frequently.
Whatever the reason, here is a brief review:
ב — א (Alef Bet) are the first letters of the words בינה — אלף Elaf Bina, learn understanding and insight which will lead to wisdom.
ד — ג (Gimel Dalet) stands for דלים — גמול , Gemul Dallim, do good for the benefit for people in need.
I understand the two phrases to be intimately connected: The source (or one of the prime sources) of understanding, insight, and wisdom originates in our acts of Tzedakah and Gemillut Chassadim and that Torah study should lead to acts of giving our time and physical energy for the good of others.
[An editorial comment: thinking about this as I write this morning, I wonder why our teachers and professors never passed on to us this piece of Torah. But that is for another item I intend to write about.]
My interpretation that the two pairs of letters are connected is confirmed as the text continues by examining the shape of the letters: It asks, why is the leg of the Gimel (the גומל – Gomel; Mitzvah-person) extended towards the Dalet the דל – Dal, the person in need? It is so that the recipient should make himself or herself available and not difficult to reach.
And why is the face of the ד (dalet) turned away from the ג (gimel)? It is so that the recipient will not be embarrassed by a face-to-face encounter.
Those are only the first four letters of the ב – א alef-bet! Trust me, it’s worth clicking here for Shabbat 104a, and going all the way to ת tav.