The shape of words (Daf Yomi Shabbos 104)

The verse added the bending of the righteous person to the bending of the faithful person.”

Today’s Daf Yomi reading has layers of meaning that are likely unknowable to someone like me who remembers shockingly very little from years of Hebrew School. Three days a week –Tuesday and Thursday after school and Sunday morning – my mother or another mother in our car-pool would drive my brother and me to the local synagogue. One day was devoted to Hebrew, one day to reading the Bible and Sunday morning to singing and cultural studies. I l loved the Bible stories of Noah and the Ark, and Lot and his wife who turned to salt and Moses who seemed so human in his anger. But the Hebrew language study was excruciating. I went on to distinguish myself in my miserable ability to learn foreign languages when I had to meet requirements in High School and College. For some reason that now seems like an act of self-torture, I took Latin in College to meet the language requirement.

Today’s Daf Yomi takes us on a journey through the shape of the Hebrew alphabet; we are reminded that the shape of words on the page have meaning. We are presented with young students who learn the alphabet “homiletically” by associating the shape of letters with Jewish values. We are told that gimmel dalet means “give to the poor”  because the leg of the gimmel is extended toward the dalet in a way that suggests the “manner of one who bestows loving-kindness to pursue the poor.”  The leg of the dalet is extended toward the gimmel to indicate that “a poor person will make himself available to him who wants to give him charity.” And the dalet faces away from the gimmel to protect the poor person from the embarrassment of receiving a hand-out.

We are provided with a series of examples of how the words of the alphabet can be learned through homilies. The word peh can be written with curved or straight lines to suggest that one needs to have an open mouth and voice his opinion or keep his mouth closed and be silent, depending on the circumstances. The word nun can also be written with curved or straight lines to indicate “the bending of the righteous person to the bending of the faithful person.”  This homily reminds us of the importance of being humble and not becoming too self-righteous.

Today’s text includes a playful example of a code by which children create new words by rearranging the first and last letters, and second and penultimate letters. It reminds me of how clever my childhood friends and I thought we were when we communicated with each other in “Pig Latin.”

Yesterday I wrote about how privileged I was to have the opportunity to study poetry with Galway Kinnell in New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing program and during summers at the Squaw Valley Writer’s Workshop in the Sierra Mountains. He would advocate for the use of Anglo-Saxon words in poetry that were tightly constructed with meaning that reverberated in their sound. Examples of these words include drop, clop, clap, bite, bad, clout, leap, pick, quench, ripe.  I have always gravitated toward multi-syllable Latinate words, such as cognizant, sentiment, sensation, inundate, beneficial. Galway considered the simpler Anglo-Saxon words more honest than their abstract Latinate counterparts. He encouraged his students to say what they intended directly and simply in their poetry rather than obfuscating the meaning through complicated literary construction. To speak plainly is more difficult than it sounds for young poets who have not yet found their “voice.”  I learned from Galway to consider not just the meaning of a word, and what it represents, but its sound and physicality.  Galway’s obituary in the New York Times called him a “plain spoken poet.” There is honest lyricism in plain-spoken words.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at