The Most Amazing Technology:


The provocative title of this essay may seem like a wild exaggeration given the fact that the Torah does not seem technologically orientated. After all, what could compete with nuclear power, genetic engineering or AC electricity ?  But I stick to my claim and I believe that after reading this you may find yourself agreeing with me. So what is this amazing technology ? I'll give you a hint; you're using it right now. Yes , its the  alphabet ! No way you say, what a letdown ! Few people think of how amazing this phenomenon really is and certainly it  deserves this title at least as much as any other technology which has single handedly changed the world.  In truth though, this topic is far bigger than anything I can possibly put into any concise essay. So why then do I take up this subject if I risk not being able to do it justice ? Because this topic is far too important to gloss over without consideration. The alphabet (or Alef Bet in Hebrew, which are the first two letters) is a central pivot in understanding the depths of the Torah. In order to appreciate just how important this is, we must start by getting some perspective on the significance of this phenomena. The Torah as far as I know, is the first major historical document to be committed to alphabetic writing.  Even though there are earlier written documents, the fact that they are not in alphabetic script makes a significant difference. The gulf  between alphabetic and non alphabetic writing should be quite clear. In a word it is speech.  No other type of writing  converts its symbols into speech, and no other type of writing substitutes characters divested of meaning into content carriers in such a way.  Hieroglyphics or Chinese ideograms are more like statements or postures of the mind. They envelop the reader in a far more bounded mentality where he is much more likely to remain in the grip of an audio based bias of feeling and emotion exclusive to his particular culture and social experience.  This helps explain why non alphabetic societies are more tribally bound together than  one based on alphabetic  literacy , although this process  usually takes a significant amount of time and may be accelerated  or decelerated by other phenomena.  Alphabetic writing  consequently has the power to be  the great cultural leveler, splitting off the visual component of experience, by making speech visable and waking people from their culturally induced trance by  substituting an eye for an ear.  This  condition now becomes  critical for helping  us understand how  societies evolve. If we need an example there is no need to look further than  the rise of Greece.  But why is this so important to understanding the Torah as a revolutionary doctrine with the power to transform history?  Obviously it is not only because of the enormous economy and speed of transmission this transition made possible. In the world according to Torah, speech is synonomous with creation, as the very first verses of Genesis specify "And G-d said let there be light". The entire world was fashioned in this manner and it follows from this that man as the microcosmic model of the universe, also creates and effects through speech. Thus speech and its conversion into writing both revolve around this fact. The mouth is the organ where the soul meets the body and reveals whatever is hidden inside its deepest recesses. This balance between the hidden and the revealed is pivotal throughout all Torah literature.  Israel and the Jewish people are empowered not primarily by their physical prowess, but rather by their ability to influence events through using their mouths in prayer.


 But first a more conventional historical summary according to the so called secular linguistic scholars. According to them, the Phoenician people living in what is now the coast of Lebanon and Syria approximately 3500 years ago get credit for this amazing phenomenon. The Phoenicians were known as a sea faring mercantile people who had much contact with various other peoples surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. However, the emphasis appears to be on one particular group of Phoenicians living on the coast in what is today North Lebanon and Syria, known as the Ugarits. Somehow and in some way they supposidly made the transition from pictoral based to speech based writing. However, the twenty-two letter alphabet which we have today was not their alphabet, not in the number of letters and not in the form of those letters. Their alphabet consisted of thirty letters which are considered a type of cuniform . What was later to be called Phoenician writing did not actually exist until somewhere between the thirteenth and fifteenth century BCE ( roughly within a century or less of the Israelite exodus from Egypt). Not long before this time their cultural capital, Ras Shamra was destroyed supposedly by Greek forces fighting the Trojan war. Following that destruction, the thirty letter alphabet vanished and afterwards we see a new twenty-two letter alphabet in its place.  Not only did  the number of symbols and their form  clearly change, but there is a further complication. According to these so called scholars, there was a parallel development in writing which also became the basis of  an  evolving  writing system which  is now called Proto Canaanite. In other words, this form of the alphabet developed slowly and hapazardly over a longer period of time than the above mentioned time frame and not exclusively in Ugarit or Phonicia. The evidence for this comes from cave scrawlings found in the Sinai peninsula dating back to approximately the end of the third millenium BCE (2000 BCE). These are thought to be the musings of travelers going from Egypt to Canaan (i.e. future Israel) which was at that time sort of a vassal state of Egypt.


Now where does Hebrew writing fit in with all this ? As is well known, there are two primary Hebrew scripts. What is known as Hebrew script today,  is referred to as "Ashurit" script. It  became the primary form of Hebrew writing only after the Babylonian exile (sixth century BCE) by the authority of Ezra, who was the Moses of his generation and held the reins of Torah authority. Secular scholars  alledge that this script was native to the Aramaen people among who the Israelites then lived during the exile.  All Hebrew writings before this are in ancient Hebrew script which by some strange coincidence is virtually identical to Phoenician script. Geographically, the Phoenicians and Hebrews became neighbors when the latter were conquering Canaan.  So by necessity we must postulate that there is a direct relationship between these two peoples. Indeed, King Solomon, when building the Temple in Jerusalem over 400 years after the Israeli conquest, was on the best of terms with Hiram, the king of Tyre (modern day Lebanon) at that time and subsequently imported building materials as well as artisans for the project from Hiram's land and people.  

 It is interesting that in old Hebrew dictionaries there used to be a chart in the preface of the dictionary, showing the Ashurit Hebrew letter next to the ancient Hebrew letter, next to the Phoenician  equivalent letter and finally a column showing the pictoral value of that particular letter.  For example an alef represented a bull (one can see the alleged horns of the bull in the form of the letter) . The letter beit represented a house or bayit in Hebrew, the letter gimel a camel or gamal in Hebrew. Where did this idea that these letters had pictoral rather than merely pronunciational value  come from ? Isn't that a throwback to a less progressive level since writing was originally pictoral rather than speech oriented ?  I am tempted to explain it as follows;  Since from a cultural point of view the Phoenicians were primarily interested in trading and commerce, writing for them might very well be more useful as a sort of symbolic shorthand which would enable them to keep quick and accurate trading records. To the Israelites however, their culture dictated  a need for writing as an important prop for literature and learning.  Symbolic  shorthand makes less sense for this purpose and speech is much more compelling.  Admittedly, this is my own intimation, but I have  heard it from at least one other source.


 What strikes me as ironic in all this, is that whether we accept  that the alphabet originated in Ugarit or Canaan by some sort of human directed metamorphosis  then we have to ask "Did it make a difference to G-d what script was used to write the Torah" ? This is important because,  the flexibility and multifaceted expressionism of the script is paramount to the entire matrix of the Torah, i.e. its structure and lingistic details,  which would be at the mercy of whatever alternative script happened to be available. The twenty-two letter alphabet is based primarily on speech and sound, again as opposed to pictural postures . Any script chosen by G-d for his purposes would have to be up to the task and pictoral writing seems poorly suited for it. Accordingly, the Torah describes this script [referring to the tablets of the ten commandments] as "the writing of G-d" to distinquish it from the rest of the Torah which was written down by Moses. Did G-d need a special specific script for the job or did he just accomodate to what was familiar to men ?

Maybe such an accomodation is fine, as long as the tools are up to the job. The implication is, that irregardless of who came up with alphabetic writing , before it existed, how could we have had a Torah as we understand it. Thereby lending support to the idea that the genesis of the "phonetic" alphabet was part and parcel of the Torah from the beginning, hewn from the same stone as it were.

 It is just assumed by these selfsame scholars, that the Hebrews borrowed the script of the Phoenicians, but it makes as much if not more sense to say that it was  the Phoenicians  who borrowed the Hebrew script ! The only way to conclusively show that the former is the case, is it to find samples of Phoenician writing which can unambiguously be shown to be older that the entrace of the Israelites from Egypt.  But even in that case we have to ask;  what about the period of the patriarchs ? Who says that Abraham was ignorant of the Hebrew alphabet ? Quite the contrary, everything points to the idea that it was part and parcel of his revolution. The famous 'Safer Yitsera' (Book of Formation) is the authority par excelance on the alphabet and tradition traces it back to Abraham ! At any rate, the genesis of the twenty-two letter alphabet must be explained. Where did this number come from ? I have serious doubts that the Phoenicians just picked this number out of a hat.


Of course todays academic world has no problem with language. According to them not only is there no G-d to choose a  script, but the entire Torah was not written down until Ezra came along or at least not until about the seventh or eighth century BCE . This is an amazing bit of historical and cultural myopia designed to fit a preconceived notion of  natural, sequencial  evolutionary development. The idea that the Torah is what it says it is simply cannot be accepted at face value, no matter how unique and immune from alternative explanation it may be.  However there is hope ! In 2012 archeologists discovered a 10th century BCE (the era of King David) shard of pottery in, of all places, the Ela valley in Israel, where David slew Goliath. What was remarkable about this shard was that it contained Hebrew verses which were clearly paraphrases of verses already in the Torah, thus presenting strong evidence to sceptics that the Torah existed as a written document long before the time of Ezra. I have to wonder whether language and literature scholars work as hard to prove that the Hindu scriptures for example were written at a different time than the Hindus say they were.

According to this scenario ancient Hebrew as a written language can be judged by its own standard, and  this makes more sense when we consider that there is a distinct agenda at work in much of the realm of Bible criticism and the linguistic analysis surrounding it. That is,  the constant need  to show that everything is just  natural and human based and the Jewish people have  fabricated much of their history as well as lie  about its time frame. Originally the Wellhausen school of Bible criticism (later half of the ninteenth century) denied that there was writing at all in Canaan in the time frame we have been discussing. It was only later when various chiseled steles were found that they were proved to be absolutely wrong. They claimed that King David was very likely not a historical person, until again an ancient stele was found mentioning his name and position in history.  Even mention of Bilam, the heathen prophet whose misdeeds occupy a large chapter in the Book of Numbers, has been found on an ancient stele. The list goes on and on but rather than disgress, I will leave the subject of Bible criticism for another essay, despite its relevency to the current subject .


Now let us turn to what the Torah scholars have said on the subject of scripts and writing. There is a debate about this in the Talmud with defenders and detractors taking both sides of the issue, but noone takes the position that the Phoenicians invented the script in which the Torah was written. Whether this is because the Torah teaches that the world was created using the Hebrew language, is not clear,  although  Ashurit is the subject of various kabbalistic treatises related to the issue of creation.  As mentioned above,  the Ashurit script used today was supposedly borrowed by Ezra from the neighboring Aramaens, implying that it was not a cultural possession of the Hebrews.  This conveniently glosses over the fact that Abraham although originally from Ur,  (in present day Iraq) much of his family were Aramaens. While it is true that the Jews mainly used the Aramaic language after the Babylonian exile, it was well known among many of the peoples of the Middle East including the Hebrews for centuries before this.

 If we turn to the issue of language as separate from scripts and writing the situation is somewhat more clear. It is hard to find anything like a pure language in a mixing bowl like the Middle East. All the neighboring languages have borrowed and exchanged words as would be expected. Even the Torah occassionaly "shares" words from other languages for its own purposes as is sometimes pointed out by biblical commentators like Rashi. Regardless, the core Hebrew of the Torah remains its own distinct language, and this is not changed just because of shared and borrowed vocabulary. We can see a demonstration of this fact in the story related in Genesis concerning the life of the third of the Patriarchs, Jacob. After running away from his home to escape the wrath of his brother Esav, he goes to live with his grandfathers kinsman Lavan in Aram (i.e. land of the Aramaens). He stays there for over twenty years eventually marrying Lavan's two daughters. In the end, a feud between them causes Jacob to pickup his household and return to Canaan (i.e. Israel). Lavan pursues him, and after a confrontation they agree to part in peace.  As a sign of this peace, they agree to erect a monument so that their descendants will remember the peace. The Torah, which is very particular in what words it records, takes the trouble to spell out the name of this monument in two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic. Clearly Jacob was fluent in both languages. Being a man of intellect, he undoubtedly was familiar with the Aramean script as well if indeed it existed. However, we are at that time in about the sixteenth or seventeenth century BCE, which even secular scholars say was before the Phoenicians came up with "their" script.


 But there is more to this story in  Jewish tradition based on what is written in the Torah itself. In the chapter 12 (Lech lecha) of the book of Genesis there is a clear indication that Torah or some form of the divine teachings were being handed down  in early generations before Abraham.  At the time that Abraham saved his nephew Lot from the kings who laid waste to Sodom, he is commended by the heretofore unmentioned figure of Malchae Zedek, who is referred to by the text as "Priest to G-d Almighty". Tradition says that he was a bonafide teacher of divine knowledge going back to Adam. Later a young Jacob is described by the Torah as "one who sat in tents", meaning he learned Torah in the tents of the known teachers of tradition Shem and Aver. This was in contrast to Esav who is referred to as "a man of the fields" meaning a hunter and was known to despise learning. But what are these teachings  that are being handed down as bonafide divine knowledge in these generations before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai ? Again tradition has it that the Patriarchs kept the precepts of the Torah in some form or another. We have mentioned previously that Abraham was responsible for the "book of Formation" which reveals the secrets of the alphabet in the creation. There can be little doubt that this was an important element in these teachings which go back in time to these earliest teachers.

In keeping with this, Torah scholars hold that the word Ashurit, rather than referring to the Asyrian or Aramaic people, comes from the Hebrew word 'asheer' meaning rich, due to its well developed form. Many of these scholars say that Ashurit script was the original script that the Torah was given in rather than old Hebrew which is virtually identical to the Phoenician script . In this Talmudic debate, one of the proofs offered for this thesis is the fact the the ashurit script fits the context of the Torah so well that the letter vav (the sixth letter of the alephbet and not a separate word),  is used to describe the "hooks" which  were part of the structure of the tabernacle built during the forty year sojourn in the desert (to conduct divine worship and to store the ark of the covenant). The letter vav itself is perfectly suited for this purpose since a vav resembles a hook, but only in the Ashurit script. In the old Hebrew/Phoenician it more resembles a  Y or a small goblet.


Another indication that Ashurit is intrinsically connected to the divine was the famous incident of "The hand writing on the wall" which happened at the time of the Babylonian exile (sixth century B.C.E), through the prophet Daniel. The king of Babylon, Belshatzar decided to aggrandise himself by donning the sacred garments of the High Priest (Kohan Gadol) which was strictly forbidden to anyone outside the priestly class [these had been captured by Babylonian forces at the time of the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem]. Suddenly a hand appearred from behind a wall and wrote several words on the wall before disappearing. The king became extremely frightened and since none of his advisors understood the writing, was compelled to call Daniel to tell him the meaning of the writing. This writing was in Ashurit which was why none of the advisors understood it, but Daniel was familiar with Ashurit and was able to tell the king the meaning. It foretold that the king had been judged and condemned to death. He was assassinated that very night by several of his subjects.

There is however in the language of the Torah itself a hint which may be the possible key to this argument. In the final book of the Torah, there is a command to future Israelite kings to "write this mishneh  Torah" . This is a puzzling phrase which clearly has a subtle meaning based on the Hebrew word "mishneh", which means changed or double depending on the context. Either way, this verse is understood to mean that at some point the writing of the Torah will change or if you will, there will be a "double" writing at some point. Ezra, clearly stood at a critical juncture in Jewish history. The First Temple period had just come to a calamitous end and the nation was clearly in crisis. Many of the generation thought that the end of the Temple meant the end of Israel as a nation. But Ezra, as a leading scholar of his generation, undertook the job of assuring that the Torah would not be forgotten. He collected whatever copies of written Torah were available and verified their accuracy. As far as we know, most complete copies of the Torah were guarded by the Kohanim (priestly class) in the Temple. The script which was written by the hand of G-d on the tablets of the ten commandments was kept in the ark of the covenant as was the Torah written by Moses. These were holy and revered and it is completely consistant that they were written in the sacred script to distinquish them from all the partial scrolls which were in the hands of the Israelite people. According to the information I was able to come across, several  Torah scrolls were recovered from the Temple ruins . Ezra compared what scrolls he had to them  and was able to reconfirm the accurracy of the Ashurit version that we have today. It was also necessary to contend with the Samaritans, who had their own Torah written in old Hebrew containing their own changes, which had to be distinquished from that of the Israelites. Hence the necessity to change the writing back to the original for all Torah scrolls going forward.

While this may seem arbitrary to people of this generation, it is difficult for us to appreciate the feeling and attitude that the ancients had towards writing. Literacy was a priviledge and most desirable goal by much of the more common folk. We do not lack testimony to the tremendous value that it held in their eyes. Even in recent history among more primitive cultures which had come under the influence of literate westerners, learning to read was held in very high esteem and was considered to bestow power and prestege. Archeologists have found simple rocks which the Hebrew alphabet was carved into,  demonstrating this level of veneration. To me it seems a contradiction in terms that the text of the Torah would call the writing on the tablets "G-d's writing" and it would be considered so central to Torah structure and essence, and yet it would be creditied to an arbitrary script . Therefore I make the point that an important part of the original knowledge taught to mankind from the beginning and later and made immortal by Avraham and the other patriarchs was the actual knowledge of how the alphabet was part of the creation.

Given that the Hebrew language is a core part of the Torah in terms of structure and function, as well as a tool of creation, we have an explanation which is diametrically opposed to the more "naturalistic" explanation. Why should we accept this concept over the more conventional explanation ? Accordingly, it was not solely invented by men with a flash of brilliant insight, but was rather a divine necessity needed to actualize the potential locked into the creation and hence, as we have mentioned above, planted into the matrix of creation at the very beginning. The Mishnaic tractate "Ethics of the Fathers" teaches that writing was one of the ten creations that due to its unique status in the Torah, was created on twilight between the sixth and seventh days. The letters themselves in their spiritual form were not only the actual medium of creation but continue to animate the physical world, since the words spoken by G-d which bought the world into existence continue to exist and maintain creation at every moment. Furthermore man became a partner in the creation given the critical role he played in wielding the power of speech. As it says in the book of Genesis that whatever Adam called a creature that became its name in the Hebrew language. These Hebrew names describe the very essence of that animal and the letters of which the name is comprised represent that essence in a similar to what we would say today that the DNA of a being describe and actualize its structure in physical detail.

This is consistant with the fact that the Torah clearly says in its very first chapter that originally all of the peoples of the earth spoke one language. Only after relating the event known as the "Tower of Babel" do we find that human society split up into separate peoples who no longer spoke the same language. Again this narrative does not seem to fit well into the version of things we have today where we just assume that it is normal and natural that society was not unified from the very start, and various tongues existed out of necessity.


Adam was no crude caveman. He had the wisdom and understanding to properly wield this tool. The power of speech to begin with, is inseparably connected to the very ability of man to address and relate to his creator and distinguishes him from all life forms that preceded him including apes and other human like beings. In many places in the Torah a high premium is put on the power of prayer. Moses and Israel were said to have fought their enemies with their mouths which was a new and novel approach to warfare. It is not that no other conventional weapons were used, but rather that the tide of the battle was ultimately determined or predetermined by putting divine power at their disposal. The clearest example of this is the battle against Amalek (Exodus, 17) where the determining factor was not only prayer but the very position of Moses arms and its effect on the army as explained by Jewish scholars (Rashi). This also explains the story of Bilam (Numbers, 22-24), the heathen prophet who was hired by the king of Moav to curse the Israelites so that they would be able to prevail over them in war. It was literally mouth vs mouth. This is a corollary of the very idea that if you penetrate beyond nature, which is based on the rule of strict justice (i.e. there is no concept of mercy in nature), events can be influenced by a higher function, namely prayer which draws upon the similarity of man to his creator. I am not saying that any time a man prays he is assured of divine intervention, but that the ability to connect to the divine is innately related to the mouth. Again referring to Bilam, this man was not credited at all with any sort of saintly status, far from it. However, he had the knowledge to wield speech in such a way that his reputation on this matter was legend and his name as well as been recorded in an ancient stele.


Let us return for a moment to the book of Formation which as previously stated was something of a blueprint of creation and forms the basis of much of the kabbalah. Ironically, this book is among the shortest of kabbalah books and was undoubtedly oral for much of its history. It was well known at the time of Rabbi Akiva (1st century AD) as the talmud relates that he and his fellow scholars would create a calf using this book and then consume the calf.  It is certainly not a book which could be picked up by just anyone and understood. It is heavily symbolic and the descriptions of the letters of the alphabet and their interaction are extremely abstract, such that one can gain access to it only by being instructed by a master. Suffice it to say that as its title implies, much of the book revolves around how the letters are combined to wield the power inherent in the creation. But on a more general level there is another critical issue in Torah which is embodied by way of the letters and sets Torah apart from our western scientific approach to the subject of creation. As I mentioned above, the distinguishing factor of the alphabet as opposed to other forms of writing is that the form of the letters is separated from any semantic meaning the letter has. In other words the form of the letter has power in and of itself. This is part of the key to understanding how the different levels of Torah are distinguished one from the other by the very usage of the letters themselves. In the written Torah the divine wisdom and understanding are engarmented using every part of the letter, word and verse because this is the very boundary between the abstract spiritual nature of the higher (ie, closer to the divine) aspect of the letters and the physical world of the senses which man inhabits and which must "speak his language".  The writing of the written Torah is literally pregnant with earthly meaning. We learn from every part of the letter. Its shape, its sound, its relationship to the organs of enunciation (ie, the lips,tongue,palate,throat,teeth which form the spoken letter), its order, combination and relation to the other letters in that particular verse. Understandably, this may sound very strange to the average person with only a secular "scientific", backround. But it is extremely well rooted in more than one respect and is very representative of a more profound way of looking at the world. The Book of Formation introduces other basic concepts from Kabbalah which go hand in hand with the idea of the alphabet being the matrix and means of creation. These include the "Eser Siferot" or ten divine emanations which animate the creation. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to go into much detail on this abstract subject, a few basic comments are in order. These emanations which may be thought of as the nature or character of creation or G-d's means of relating to the creation, are divided into three columns, generally referred to as left, right and middle. The left side in general, refers to those forces which limit, restrict or take. Represented in its most basic form by the force of "Gevorah" or strict judgement and exact measuring.  The right side are those which expand, dispense or give, represented in the most basic form by "Chesed" or giving without necessarily any limitation. There needs to be a balance between these forces as by themselves they can do as much harm as good. This is the middle column or combination of left and right. So how is this so related to the alphabet itself ? We mentioned that every part of the letter is representative of the power and intrisic value of the letter. These letters have as their source the five parts of the organs of enumciation (i.e. the mouth). Upon examination it can be seen that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be divided up into five groups depending on which part of the mouth they are formed in. For example the letters beit, mem and pae (sounding like B,M,P ) are formed primarily by the breath (the life force or aspect of giving)  being withheld and limited  by one's lips. Similarly, another group of letters depends on the teeth, or palette or tongue. Each of these sources of Gevorah (the power to form something through the act of limiting or withholding) play a critical role in the creation overall which is closely related to the powers of the mouth. In modern parlance we could say that the mouth and by extension the alphabet, is a microcosm of  the hidden forces of creation.