The Book of Letters
A Mystical Hebrew Alphabet
(The Kushner Series)
By Lawrence Kushner
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, 80 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 13, 2013
This very popular book about Hebrew letters was first published in 1975. This is the fifteenth anniversary second edition that contains a new forward in which the rabbi reveals the serendipitous situations that prompted the writing and unique style of the book.
Rabbi Kushner is very interested in Jewish mysticism and some mysticism, but not too much, flavors his presentation. Ignoring the fact that most scholars agree that the shape of the letters that we have today were introduced into Judaism around 500 BCE and the Torah, if composed before that date as tradition states, was written with a different script, he tells readers in his introduction the delightful rabbinical tales that the Hebrew letters have an existence separate than the words that contain them, and tells us why. He says that the letters were even around before the world was created and were mysteriously linked with the creative process. Bezalel used the Hebrew letters to help build the wilderness tabernacle during the days of Moses. God created the form of the letters just before he rested on the seventh day. God also placed crowns on certain letters. (The dating of the letters is not significant in regard to these stories because the rabbis who invented them didn't mean that they should be accepted literally.)
Kushner describes the nature of each of the twenty two Hebrew letters and tells interesting information about them. For instance, a tradition arose to place three crowns upon seven letters when they appear in the Torah scroll. Each of these seven letters is formed in part with the seventh letter zayin. Another example of the usage of letters in the Torah scroll in the letter chet, which has an uncut line at its top in regular script, but the line is cut in the Torah. Kushner also mentions words that begin with each letter and, among many other things, we sometimes see words that contradict one another built from the same first letter.
In short, this is both a delightful book in what is presented and how it is presented and it is informative.