the hebrew language contains a letter that no one can pronounce. It is not that it represents a particularly demanding sound, such as the notoriously difficult emphatic dental of classical Arabic (ض) which many native speakers never fully master, or the complex sibilant liquid of Czech (ř),which gives foreigners so much trouble and which even Roman Jakobson, in a rare moment of personal disclosure, confessed he could not always produce in his dreams.1 The Hebrew letter aleph (א) cannot be pronounced, not because its sound is too complex but because it is too simple; none may utter this letter because, unlike all others, it represents no sound at all. Of course, it is thought that this was not always so. Aleph is said to have originally indicated the movement of the larynx in the production of a glottal stop. The counterpart less of the Arabic alif (ا), than of the hamza (ء), the Hebrew letter would have represented a mere gesture of articulation; its sound would have been like that of “a sudden spasm of the chest that needs some effort to produce,” as Sībawayh, the great grammarian of classical Arabic, once described the hamza.2 In his Compendium grammatices linguae hebraeae, Spinoza described the phonetic character of the letter aleph with great precision, writing that it “cannot be explained by any other in the European languages.”3 Strictly speaking, aleph represents no fully articulated noise, being merely in Spinoza’s terms, the sign of “the beginning of sound in the throat that is heard by its opening.”4 But such an account of the letter conceals to a certain degree its true nature, which is even more modest than the grammarians would allow. The Hebrew aleph has not possessed the “articulatory” value indicated by the hamza in classical Arabic for a very long time, and the belief in its past existence can be nothing more, and nothing less, than the work of philological and linguistic reconstruction. It is as if the sound of aleph had been forgotten by the people who once produced it: of the many modern pronunciations of Hebrew, not one assigns any sound to the letter, and in all of them aleph is treated as the silent support for the vowels it bears, deprived of even the non-sound, the interruption in articulation, it is thought to have once expressed.5
Despite its phonetic poverty, however, aleph is a letter of prestige in the Jewish tradition, and it is certainly no accident that the Hebrew grammarians consider it the first in the alphabet. One of the earliest great works of the Kabbalah, The Book Bahir (ספר הבהיר), defines it as older than all signs and more primordial than their combination in Scripture: “Aleph preceded everything, even the Torah”(היתה קודם לכל ואפי׳ לתורה).6 It is almost as if the silence of aleph were not only the sign but also the reason for its distinction. The introductory section of the Zohar explains the letter’s privileges as the just rewards for its exceptional modesty:
When the Holy One, Blessed be He, was about to create the world, the letters [of the Hebrew alphabet] were with Him. And He contemplated them and played with them for the two thousand years that preceded the creation.When He decided to create the world, each of the letters came before Him, from the last to the first.7
It is only natural, of course, for each to wish to be the instrument of creation, and every letter, from tav (ת) to gimel (ג), furnishes good yet ultimately insufficient grounds for her candidacy (letters in Hebrew are feminine). Tav points out that she constitutes “the seal of truth” (אמת), shin (ש) that she marks the beginning of the divine name “Almighty” (שדי), tsadi (צ) that she is the inception of the “righteous” (צדיקים), as each member of the alphabet, beginning with the last, steps forward to extol her virtue. Finally we reach bet (ב), who reminds God that “it is thanks to me that you are blessed [ברך] both above and below,” thereby earning her distinguished position in the opening words of the Torah: “In the beginning [God] created...” (בראשית ברא). “‘Of course!’ the Almighty, Blessed be He, responded. ‘It is with you that I will create the world; you will be the one to inaugurate the creation of the world.’ ”8
During the entire proceedings, we read, aleph hid herself:
Aleph abstained from coming forward. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to her: “Aleph, Aleph, why did you not come forward before Me like all the other letters?” Aleph responded: “Master of the World, I saw all the other letters come before you to no end, and what was I then to do? Moreover, You have already given this precious gift to the letter Bet, and it is not proper for the great King to take back the gift that He has just given to one servant to give it to another.” The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to her: “Aleph, Aleph, even though I will create the world with Bet, you will be the first among all the letters of the alphabet. I will have unity in you alone, and you will also be the beginning of all calculations and all works in the world. All unification will rest in the letter Aleph alone.”9
Excluded from the first word of creation, aleph nevertheless becomes the fundamental principle of all construction. Placed at the inception of the alphabet, the letter is accorded the numerical value “one,” and its silence in the beginning proves the reason for its subsequent elevation among all others.
The first portion of Bereshit rabbah, one of the most famous of the ancient commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, dwells at some length on the absence of aleph from the beginning, recording a number of interpretations of the seeming lacuna at the opening of the Torah. Here Rabbi Yoma starts the discussion, asking, on behalf of Rabbi Levi, “ ‘Why was the world created with the letter bet?’ ”10 Another midrash aggadah is even more pointed. “The text [of Genesis] could also have read ‘God in the beginning created,’ in which case the first letter would have been aleph” (aleph being the letter of the divine name used in the opening verses of Genesis, (אלהים).11 Various reasons for the worthiness of bet are adduced, but before long the sages explicitly pose the question of the absent aleph: “Why not aleph?”
Because it is the sign of cursing [ארירה, which begins with an aleph]. Another interpretation: so as not to give reasons to the heretics who would then say, “How can a world exist if it is created under the sign of cursing?” ... Truly the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, “I will thus create [the world] under the sign of blessing [(ברכה)], so that it may exist thus.”12
Before causing consternation among the Palestinian rabbis, however, the incipit is said to have troubled no one more than the letter herself:
A saying of Rabbi Eliezer on behalf of Rabbi Aha: For twenty-six generations [the twenty-six generations between Adam and the revelation at Sinai], Aleph grieved before the Throne of glory of the Holy One, Blessed be He. “Master of the world,” she said, “You did not create the world with me, although I am the first of the letters!” The Holy One, Blessed be He, answered, “The world and that which fills it were only created for the sake of the Torah, as it is written: ‘The Lord has made the earth with wisdom [that is, the Torah]’ [Proverbs 3.19]. And indeed tomorrow giving the Torah at Sinai, when I begin to speak, I will utter no other letter than you:‘I [אנכי which begins with the letter aleph] am the Lord your God’ [Exodus 20.20]”13
Recalling the form of the opening of the Decalogue, the tale (which is repeated again in a much later midrash14) moves the discussion from one beginning to another, substituting the absence of the letter from one capital passage for its decisive presence at the scene of the giving of the Torah in its entirety. If one recalls that the revelation at Sinai is in every sense the fundamental event in the history of the Jewish tradition, it is not difficult to measure the honor thus accorded aleph. The prestige of the letter in the history of Israel, quite simply, could not be greater.
When the precise nature of the revelation became an explicit topic of investigation, the commentators were naturally forced to confront the original form of the divine words inaugurated by aleph. The Talmudic treatise Makkot, which contains a fundamental discussion of the matter, established that the only words directly heard by all the children of Israel at the foot of the mountain were those of the two phrases that, in Exodus, immediately follow the initial aleph of “I” (אנכי) the commandments “I am (the Lord thy God),” and “Thou shalt have no other (gods before Me).”15 Considering the “speech at Sinai” at some length in the second book of The Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides drew on this Talmudic source while departing from it significantly. He argued that the rabbinic claim that the Israelites heard “I am [the Lord thy God]” and “Thou shalt have no other [gods before Me]” directly from the mouth of the Almighty was purely speculative: it indicated that “the principles of divine existence and unity can be conceived by [mere] human understanding.”16 Maimonides could then add the following, more modest answer to the question of what the Israelites themselves actually heard: “It is clear to me that in the scene of Mount Sinai, not everything that reached Moses reached the Israelites in its totality.”17 Noting that God addresses himself in this passage exclusively to a second-person singular, and that the text of scripture relates only that the Israelites perceived a “voice” (קול), the philosopher concluded that the people “heard a mighty voice, but not distinct words” (אלצןט אלאטים לא תפשיר אלכלאם), literally “the mighty voice, but not the distinction of speech”).18 “In the whole scene,” Maimonides thus reasoned, not without a certain severity, “the Israelites heard only one sound, and they heard it only once.”19 The philosopher in this way both rewrote a rabbinic gloss on the biblical passage and anticipated its most radical mystical interpretations. The “one sound” of The Guide of the Perplexed recalls the Talmudic reading of the first word uttered at Sinai, “I” (אנכי), as the stenogram of an entire Aramaic phrase, “I decline my soul in writing.”20 But at the same time, only the smallest gap separates it from the doctrine of the eighteenth century Hassidic rabbi Mendel of Rymanów, which Gershom Scholem once summarized as follows: “All that Israel heard was the Aleph with which in the Hebrew text the first Commandment begins, the Aleph of the word anokhi, ‘I’ ”21
Through a series of contractions of increasing intensity the divine revelation is thus reduced to its smallest element: from the text of the entire Torah as it was given at Sinai, we pass to the only text that was heard by all, the first two commandments, which are then said to be contained in the single word “I” (אנכי) and, in the most extreme case, compressed into its initial aleph, which The Book Bahir defines as “the essence of the Ten Commandments (עקרהון דעשרת הדברות),22 and the Zohar as the “head and end of all degrees,” “the inscription in which all degrees are inscribed.”23 The single, “mighty voice” of which Maimonides wrote thus shows itself, in the end, to be curiously silent: all revelation is reduced to a single letter whose sound none can recall. The point is perhaps less startling when it is grasped in its theological dimension. Could God have shown himself to human beings in anything other than a letter that they had always already forgotten? The sole material of divine speech, the silent letter marks the forgetting from which all language emerges. Aleph guards the place of oblivion at the inception of every alphabet.
1. Jakobson, Kindersprache, Aphasie, und allgemeine Lautgesetze, rpt. in Jakobson, Selected Writings, vol. 1, Phonological Studies, pp. 370- 71; English in Jakobson, Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals, p. 63. While discussing the similarities between speech disorders in dreams and aphasic symptoms, Jakobson comments: “Not only the words actually uttered by the dreamer, but also the ‘introspectively graspable non-motor speech’ which is only dreamed, can be subject to certain sound mutilations. I have observed this phenomenon several times in my own dream language. The alarm clock recently interrupted my sleep, in which I dreamed of having said seme. As I awoke, I was positive that this stood for zemřel, ‘dead’ (in my dreams, I now mainly speak in Czech).”←
3. Spinoza, Compendium grammatices linguae hebraeae, in Opera, vol. 1 , Korte verhandeling van God; De Mensch en deszelfs welstand; Renati Des Cartes principiorum philosophiae pars I & II; Cogitata metaphysica; Compendium grammatices linguae hebraeae, p. 288.←
7. Sefer ha-Zohar 2b. An English translation be found in can The Zohar, vol. 1, p. 9. Many works, primary and secondary could be cited on the status of letters in the kabbalistic doctrines of creation; for an overview of the problems at issue in the kabbalistic philosophy of language, see Gershom Scholem’s fundamental essay "Der Name Gottes und die Sprachtheorie der Kabbalah," in Judaica III, pp. 7–70; see also Sirat, "Les Lettres hebraïques."←