The Blessed Holy One Hewed out all the Letters of Torah, Engraving them with Breath
“The twenty-two letters: they are engraved by voice, hewn out by breath, embedded in the mouth in five positions: אחה״ע בומ״ף גיכ״ק דטלנ״ת זסשר״ץ” (Sefer Yetsirah §17a).
“Quarry of the Torah, Treasury of Wisdom, Quarry of God’s breath, to teach that the blessed Holy One hewed out all the letters of Torah, engraving them with breath, and actualizing צוּרוֹתָיו (tsurotaiv), His forms, within, as is written: There is no צוּר (tsur), rock, like our God (1 Samuel 2:2)—‘there is no צַיָּיר (tsayyar), artist, like our God’ (BT Berakhot 10a)” (Bahir §143).
“Rav Hamnuna Sava said: ‘We find the letters backward [in the first verse of the Torah]: ב (bet) first, followed by bet: בְּרֵאשִׁית (Bereshit), in the beginning, followed by בָּרָא (bara), created. Then א (alef) first, followed by alef: אֱלֹהִים (Elohim), followed by אֵת (et).
‘The reason is: When the blessed Holy One wished to fashion the world, all the letters were hidden away. For two thousand years before creating the world, the blessed Holy One contemplated them and played with them [see Bahir §5]. As He verged on creating the world, all the letters presented themselves before Him, from last to first.
The letter ת (tav) entered first of all. She said, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for I complete Your seal: אֶמֶת (emet), truth—and You are called Truth. It is fitting for the King of Truth to begin with a letter of truth and to create the world by me.’ The blessed Holy One replied: ‘You are seemly and worthy, but not deserving to initiate Creation, since you are destined to be marked upon the foreheads of the faithful who fulfilled the Torah from alef to tav and by your mark they will die. Furthermore, you are the seal of מָוֶת (mavet), death. So, you do not deserve to serve as an instrument of Creation.’ She departed immediately.
The letter ש (shin) came before Him. She said, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for by me You are named שַׁדָּי (Shaddai), and it is fitting for the world to be created by a holy name. He replied: You are seemly, you are good and you are true, but since the letters of deceit come and take you for their partner, I do not want to create the world by you. For a lie cannot exist unless ק״ר (qof, resh) take you. So whoever wants to tell a lie will first lay their foundation of truth and then construct the lie [cf. Proverbs 12:19; BT Shabbat 104a; Sotah 35a]. For shin is a letter of truth, a true letter of the patriarchs, who were united in it; qof, resh are the letters that appear on the evil side. In order to survive, they entangle the letter shin, forming קֶשֶׁר (qesher), conspiracy. Seeing this, she left His presence.
The letter צ (tsadi) entered. She said to Him, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for צַדִּיקִים (tsaddiqim), the righteous, are sealed by me, and You, who are called צַדִּיק (tsaddiq), Righteous, are signified by me, as is written, For YHWH is tsaddiq, righteous—loving righteousness (Psalms 11:7). It is fitting to create the world by me!’ He replied, ‘Tsadi, you are tsaddiq, righteous, but you should remain hidden—not so revealed—so as not to provide the world a pretext.’ How so? She is נ (nun). י (Yod) from the name of the holy covenant comes and rides on her, is united with her. This is the mystery: When the blessed Holy One created Adam, He created him with two faces…. So the yod faces backward…. They were not turned face to face… it [yod] looked upwards…. it looked downwards…. The blessed Holy One said to her ‘Turn back, for I intend to split you and transfigure you face-to-face, but you will arise elsewhere.’ She left His presence and departed.
The letter פ (peh) entered. She said to Him, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for I signify פּוּרְקֶנָא (purqena), the redemption, that You will someday bring upon the world and also פְּדוּת (pedut), deliverance. It is fitting to create the world by me!’ He replied, ‘You are seemly, but you signify hidden transgression, like a serpent striking, then tucking its head into its body: so one who sins bows his head, stretching out his hands.’
Similarly, ע (ayin) stands for עֲוֹן (avon), iniquity. Although she said, ‘I imply עֲנָוָה (anavah), humility,’ the blessed Holy One replied, ‘I will not create the world by you.’ She left His presence.
The letter ס (samekh) entered. She said to Him, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for by me סְמִיכָא (semikha), support, exists for those who fall, as is written, סוֹמֵךְ יְהוָה (somekh Adonai), YHWH supports all who fall (Psalms 145:14). He replied, ‘So you are needed where you are! Don’t move from there! If you leave, what would happen to the fallen, who depend on you?’ She immediately left His presence.
The letter נ (nun) entered. She said to Him, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for by me You are called נוֹרָא (nora), Awesome, in praises (Exodus 15:11). By me, the praise of the righteous is called נָאוָה (navah), comely (Psalms 33:1).’ He replied, ‘Nun, return to your place, for because of you samekh has returned to her place. Depend on her.’ She returned immediately, leaving His presence [nun alludes to נוֹפְלִים (nofelim), the fallen, supported by samekh, see BT Berakhot 4b].
The letter מ (mem) entered. She said to Him, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for by me You are called מֶלֶךְ (melekh), King.’ He replied, ‘Certainly so, but I will not create the world by you, since the world needs a king. Return to your place, you along with ל (lamed) and ך (kaf), for the world should not be without a king.’
At that moment כ (kaf) descended from His throne of glory. Trembling, she said to Him, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for I am your כָּבוֹד (Kavod), ‘Glory.’’
When kaf descended from the throne of glory, 200,000 worlds trembled, the throne trembled, and all the worlds verged on collapse. The blessed Holy One said to her, ‘Kaf, kaf what are you doing here? I will not create the world by you. Return to your place, for you imply כְּלָיָה (kelayah), destruction—a decree of destruction (Isaiah 10:23). Return to your throne and stay there.’ She thereupon left His presence and returned to her place.
The letter י (yod) entered. She said to Him, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for I am the beginning of the holy Name. It is fitting for You to create the world by me!’ He replied, ‘It is enough for you to be engraved in Me, to be inscribed in Me. My desire culminates in you. You should not be uprooted from My name.’
The letter ט (tet) entered. She said to Him, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for by me You are called טוֹב וְיָשָׁר (tov ve-yashar), Good and upright (Psalms 25:8).’ He replied, ‘I will not create the world by you, for your goodness is concealed and hidden within you, as is written, How abundant is Your goodness that You have hidden away for those in awe of You (Psalms 31:20). Since it is hidden within you, it plays no part in this world that I am about to create, but rather in the world to come. Furthermore, because your goodness is hidden within you, the gates of My Temple will sink, as is written: Her gates טָבְעוּ (tave’u), have sunk, into the earth (Lamentations 2:9). Further, facing you is ח (ḥet), and when you join together with her, you spell חֵטְא (ḥet), sin. So these two letters are not inscribed in the holy tribes. She immediately left His presence.
The letter ז (zayin) entered. She said to Him, ‘Master of the worlds, may it please You to create the world by me, for by me Your children observe the Sabbath, as is written: זָכוֹר (zakhor), Remember, the Sabbath day, to hallow it (Exodus 20:8).’ He replied, ‘I will not create the world by you, for you imply war—a sharp sword and a spear for battle, like a ן (nun). She immediately left His presence.
The letter ו (vav) entered. She said to Him, ‘Master of the world, may it please You to create the world by me, for I am a letter in Your Name.’ He replied, ‘Vav, it is enough for you and ה (he) to be letters of My name, included in the mystery of My name, engraved and carved in My name. I will not create the world by either of you.’
The letters ד (dalet) and ג (gimel) entered and made the same request. He replied to them as well, ‘It is enough for you to be with each other, since the poor will never cease and need to be treated kindly. Dalet is poor; gimel, גְמוֹל (gomel), renders, goodness to her. Do not separate from one another! It is enough for one of you to sustain the other.’
The letter ב (bet) entered, she said to Him, ‘Master of the world, may it please You to create the world by me, for by me you are בָּרוּךְ, (barukh), blessed, above and below.’ The blessed Holy One replied, ‘Indeed, by you I will create the world. You will be the beginning of Creation.’
The letter א (alef) stood but did not enter. The blessed Holy One said to her, ‘Alef, alef, why do you not enter My presence like all of the other letters?’ She replied, ‘Master of the world! Because I saw all the letters leaving Your presence fruitlessly. What could I do there? Further more, look, You have given this great gift to the letter bet, and it is not fitting for the exalted King to take back a gift He has given to His servant and give it to another!’ The blessed Holy One said, ‘Alef, alef! Although I will create the world with the letter bet, you will be the first of all the letters. Only through you do I become יִחוּדָא (yiḥuda), one. With you, all counting begins and every deed in the world. No יִחוּדָא (yiḥuda), union, is actualized except by alef’” (Zohar 1:2b–3b).
“Of the letters of Torah it says: ‘There is no early or late in Torah’ (BT Pesaḥim 6b). However, in the Throne [Shekhinah] all is arrayed fittingly. And this secret has been set aside for those wise of heart.
And the enlightened will shine (Daniel 12:3)—these are the letters which have a mind to enter before the King, each one according to its תִקוּנא (tiqquna), order. From the side of Judgement each one entered from last to first, because the left arm is [the month of] Tishrei [see BT Rosh ha-Shanah 18a]. This is בְּרֵאשִׁית (Bereshit), in the beginning, and it is בְּ״א תִּשְׁרֵי (be-alef tishrei), in the first of Tishrei, because the world was created with Judgment [cf. Rabbenu Tam on BT Rosh ha-Shanah 27a]. Therefore they entered from last to first. But we have said that the world was created from the right side, and the letters entered from first to last? The mystery of the matter: I have said, the world is built by kindness (Psalms 89:3). Therefore when the letters entered from last to first, and then from first to last, the blessed Holy One did not want to create the world by them until He joined them together, the right side and the left side. Only then did He create the world by them.
He took א (alef), and then ב (bet) in order, and He took תש״ר (tav, shin, resh) in reverse order. He then placed י (yod) with them from His Name, and He created the world by them, that the building should endure, and they are: אביתש״ר (alef, bet, yod, tav, shin, resh). The letters of אֲבִי (avi), my Father, are: אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדוֹ נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חָי (Asher be-yado nefesh kal ḥai), in whose hand is the breath of each living thing (Job 12:10); ת (tav) is תּוֹרַת יְהוָה תְּמִימָה (torat Adonai temimah), the teaching of YHWH is perfect (Psalms 19:8); ש (shin) is שַׁבָּת (shabbat), Sabbath; ר (resh) is רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה יִרְאַת יְהוָה (reshit ḥakhmah yirat Adonai), the beginning of wisdom—fear of YHWH (Psalms 111:10). And from all of these only with the letter ב (bet) did the blessed Holy One wish to begin. It is the building of the אָב (av), Father, the building of the world, and from there He began, because in the future by it He will build Jerusalem, as is said, בּוֹנֵה יְרוּשָׁלִַם יְהוָה (boneh yerushalayim Adonai), Builder of Jerusalem, YHWH (Psalms 147:2); אִם יְהוָה לֹא יִבְנֶה בַיִת (im Adonai lo yivneh vayit), if YHWH does not build a house [in vain do its builders labor on it] (Psalms 127:1). Also, the building of Torah and the World that is Coming are with the letter bet, and on her the world endures. In the time of its building, it is as the time the world was being created and built. And this is, Bereshit, in the beginning (Genesis 1:1). But when the First Temple was destroyed it was as if the world was welter and waste [cf. BT Sanhedrin 103a in the name of Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai]. And this is, And the earth then was תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ (tohu va-vohu), welter and waste (Genesis 1:1). Immediately after it is built it is written, And YHWH said, ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3). Because all the letters shine there. Even though the אוֹר (or), light, is the letter א (alef) His light shines into bet with the ה״ (five) lights which is the upper ה (he) of יהוה (YHWH)” (Tiqqunie ha-Zohar 16a).