The following is a story about Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Tov) and his scribe, who were once stranded on an isolated island. They were both frightened and discouraged, and had forgotten all they once studied.
“Can’t you remember anything?” said the rabbi to his scribe.
“Nothing, rabbi,” answered the scribe, “only . . .”
“Only what?” asked the rabbi.
“Only the Alef Bet,” answered the scribe hesitantly.
“Continue,” said the rabbi.
The scribe continued slowly, slowly to recite all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Alef, Bet, Gimmel, Dalet, Heh, Vav, etc. Baal Shem Tov repeated after him: Alef, Bet, Gimmel, Dalet, Heh, Vav . . . to the end of the alphabet. And then they started from the beginning again, reciting together all the letters of the alphabet, which is said contain all the secrets of the world. They recited the letters with such a glow and enthusiasm that they fell into ecstasy.
The Hebrew alphabet can teach us a lot even if we do not fall into ecstasy. First of all, every Hebrew letter has a numeric value; for example, Alef has the numeric value 1, Bet is 2, Gimmel is 3, and the value of the last letter, Tav, is 400.
Every Hebrew letter also has a name that gives us an indication of the background of the letter. In this short article I will give two examples: the first and last letters of the alphabet, Alef (א) and Tav (ת).
The shape of the letter Alef in ancient Hebrew was similar to the head of an ox. The head is what comes first. If this old Alef is turned 90 degrees to the right, we get close to the Greek and Latin letter A. This shows the close relationship between the ancient Hebrew alphabet and the Greek alphabet.
The last letter of the alphabet, Tav, had the shape of a St. Andrew cross (X) in ancient Hebrew. “Tav” means a mark. The word is found twice in the Old Testament, in Ezekiel 9:4–6: “Walk through the streets of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of all who weep and sigh. . . . But do not touch anyone with the mark . . .” The people with the mark (Tav) were saved.
Yeshua says he is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega—or in Hebrew, Alef and Tav. Yeshua is the Messiah, in Hebrew Mashiach. If we put the Hebrew letter Mem (M), for Messiah, between Alef and Tav, we get the Hebrew word for truth: Alef – Mem – Tav, EMET (אמת).
We might not fall into ecstasy reciting the Hebrew letters as Baal Shem Tov and his scribe did, but if we pay attention, the letters might reveal to us some of their secrets.
This article originally appeared on the Caspari Center, February 4, 2016.