The Original Language

« Gershom Scholem, circa 1970 »

According to Gershom Scholem: « Hebrew is the original language »i. For the sake of a sound debate, one could perhaps argue that Sanskrit, the « perfect » language (according to the Veda), was formed several millennia before Hebrew began to incarnate the word of God. However, such historical and linguistic arguments may have no bearing on the zealots of the « sacred language », the language that God Himself is supposed to have spoken, with His own words, even before the creation of the world.

Where does this supposedly unique status of the Hebrew language come from?

A first explanation can be found in the relationship between the Torah and the name of God. The Torah is, literally, the name of God. Scholem explains: « The Torah is not only made up of the names of God, but forms in its entirety the one great name of God. » In support of this thesis, the opinion of the Kabbalistic cenacle of Gerona is quoted: « The five books of the Torah are the name of the Holy One, blessed be He.» ii

How can this be? Here and there in the Torah, we find various names of God, such as the name Yahveh (YHVH) or the name Ehyeh (« I shall be »). But there are also many other (non divine) names, and many other words, that are perfectly profane in the Torah. The four letters aleph, he, waw and yod (אהוי), which are present in Yahveh (יהוה) and Ehyeh ( אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה) are also the letters that serve in Hebrew as matres lectionis (the « mothers of reading »), and as such, they are spread throughout the text, they structure it, and make it intelligible.

From that consideration, some Kabbalists, such as Abraham Aboulafia, draw the conclusion that the true name of God is neither Yahveh nor Ehyeh. Aboulafia goes so far as to say that the true original name of God is EHWY (אהוי), that is, a name composed of the four fundamental letters, without repetition. « The tetragrammaton of the Torah is thus only an expedient, behind which the true original name is hidden. In each of two four-letter names there are only three of the consonants that make up the original name, the fourth being only a repetition of one of them, namely, he (ה). » iii

It was, without a doubt, a thesis of « unheard-of radicality » to affirm that the name of God does not even appear in the Torah, but only some of his pseudonyms… Moses Cordovero of Safed rose with indignation against this maximalist thesis. Yet a similar idea resurfaces elsewhere, in the Kabbalistic work entitled Temunah. It evokes « the conception of a divine name containing, in a different order these four letters, yod, he, waw, aleph, and which would constitute the true name of God before the creation of the world, for which the usual tetragram was substituted only for the creation of this world.» iv

Not surprisingly, there are many more other ideas on the matter. There is, for example, the idea of the existence of seventy-two divine names formed from the seventy-two consonants contained in each of the three verses of Exodus 14:19-21. « Know that the seventy-two sacred names serve the Merkavah and are united with the essence of the Merkavah. They are like columns of shining light, called in the Bible bne elohim, and all the heavenly host pays homage to them. (…) The divine names are the essence itself, they are the powers of the divinity, and their substance is the substance of the light of life.» v

There are also technical methods « to expand the tetragram, writing the name of each of the consonants that make up the tetragram in full letters so as to obtain four names with numerical values of 45, 52, 63 and 72, respectively ».vi Far from being a simple set of letters and numbers, this is a mechanism that is at the foundation of the worlds. « The Torah is formed in the supreme world, as in this original garment, only from a series of combinations, each of which unites two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet. It is only in the second world that the Torah manifests itself as a series of mystical divine names formed from new combinations of the first elements. It has the same letters, but in a different order than the Torah we know. In the third world the letters appear as angelic beings whose names, or at least their initials, are suggested. It is only in the ultimate world that the Torah becomes visible in the form in which it is transmitted to us.» vii

From all of this, one may be tempted to draw the fundamental idea that Hebrew is indeed the original language, the divine language. « Hence the conventional character of secular languages as opposed to the sacred character of Hebrew. »viii

However, there was the catastrophic episode of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages, which spared none of them – including Hebrew! « But to the sacred language itself have since then mingled profane elements, just as profane languages still contain here and there elements or remnants of the sacred language.» ix

One is always happy to learn, when one has a somewhat universalist sensibility, that « remnants » of the sacred still exist, « here and there », in other languages. To lovers of languages and dictionaries then comes the thankless but promising task of discovering these sacred snags, which are perhaps still hidden in Greek or Arabic, Avestic or Sanskrit, or even Fulani, Wolof and Chinese, who knows?

From a perhaps more polemical point of view, one may wonder whether this is not a kind of idolatry of the letter, — an « idolettry » , then, or a « grapho-latry »…

We may need to go up to a higher level of understanding, to see things from a higher perspective. « Wisdom is contained and gathered in letters, in sefirot and in names, all of which are mutually composed from each other.» x

We need to broaden the vision. These tiny sacred traces present in the languages of the world are like living germs. « All languages derive their origin by corruption from the original sacred language, in which the world of names immediately unfolds, and they all relate to it in a mediated way. As every language has its home in the divine name, it can be brought back to this center.» xi

All languages then have a vocation to return to the divine « center ». Every word and every letter contain, perhaps, by extension, a tiny bit of sacredness…

« Each singular letter of the Kabbalah constitutes a world in itself » xii, Gershom Scholem adds in a note that in the Zohar (1:4b) it is said that every new and authentic word that man utters in the Torah stands before God, who embraces it and sets it with seventy mystical crowns. And this word then expands in its own motion to form a new world, a new heaven and a new earth.

Let’s be a little more generous, and give the goyim a chance. When the poet says, for example, « O million golden birds, O future vigor!  » , is there any chance that these inspired words, though not present in the Torah, will one day appear trembling before God, and that God will deign to grant them one or two mystical crowns? I do not know. But maybe so. In the eyes of Aboulafia himself, « the knowledge that can be attained by following the path of the mysticism of language prevails over that which follows the path of the ten sefirot. xiii

So let’s make a wager that all languages have their own « mystical » way, certainly well hidden.

Scholem concludes: « What will be the dignity of a language from which God has withdrawn? This is the question that must be asked by those who still believe that they perceive, in the immanence of the world, the echo of the creative word that has now disappeared. It is a question that, in our time, can only be answered by poets, who do not share the despair of most mystics with regard to language. One thing connects them to the masters of Kabbalah, even though they reject its theological formulation, which is still too explicit: the belief in language thought as an absolute, however dialectically torn, – the belief in the secret that has become audible in language. » xiv

For my part, I believe that no human language is totally deserted of all creative speech, of all sacred flavor. I believe that poets all over the world may hear the disturbing echoes, may perceive infinitesimal vibrations, guess the celestial chords present in their languages.

Whether they are whispered, spoken, dreamed, revealed, words from all origins only approach the mystery. It is already a lot, but it is still very little.

There is much more to be said about silence than about words.

« It is indeed quite striking in view of the sacramental meaning that speech had in a decisive manner in contemporary paganism, that it does not play any role in the Israelite religion, nor especially in its rite. This silence is so complete that it can only be interpreted as intentional silence. The Israelite priest fulfills all his offices entirely without any words, with the exception of the blessing which he must pronounce aloud [Numbers 6:24]. In none of his ceremonial acts is he prescribed a word that he must pronounce. He makes all sacrifices and performs his duties without uttering a single word »xv.

The opposition thus made by Benno Jacob between « Israelite worship » and « paganism » may be be easily contradicted, for that matter. During the Vedic sacrifice of the soma, the high priest also remains absolutely silent throughout the ceremony, while his acolytes chant, sing, or recite the hymns.

It is true, however, that the Veda is certainly not a « pagan » religion, since more than a millennium before Abraham left Ur in Chaldea, Veda was already celebrating the unspeakable unity of the Divine.


iGershom Scholem. The name of God and the Kabbalistic theory of language. Ed. Alia. 2018, p. 100.

iiIbid. p.48

iiiAbraham Aboulafia. Gold ha-Sekel. Ms. Munich Heb. 92 Fol.54 a-b. Quoted in Gershom Scholem. The name of God and the Kabbalistic theory of language. Ed. Alia. 2018, p. 71

ivGershom Scholem. Op. cit. p. 72

vJacob ben Jacob Cohen of Soria (~1260-1270) quoted in op.cit. p.77

viGershom Scholem. Op. cit. p. 88

viiIbid. p.88

viiiIbid. p. 91

ixIbid. p. 91

xNer Elohim. Ms. Munich 10, fol. 164B quoted in op.cit. p. 91

xiIbid. p. 106

xiiSefer ha-Melits. Ms. Munich 285, fol. 10a

xiiiGershom Scholem. Op. cit. p.109

xivIbid. p.115

xvBenno Jacob. In the Name of God. Eine sprachliche und religiongeschichtliche Untersuchung zum Alten und Neuen Testament. Berlin, 1903, p. 64. Quoted in G. Scholem, op.cit. p. 19-20.

The other ‘Other’

In his Observations on Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ book entitled The Guide for the Perplexedi Leibniz refers to two other « Tetragrams », one of twelve letters and the other of forty-two. But he remains elliptical on how a four-letter Tetragram, to put it pleonastically, can expand like this into many more letters.

Leibniz also indicates that Moses received « thirteen prophecies » from Godii. Here is the detail of this revelation, reported in the Exodus, and quoted in full.

« The Lord passed before him and shouted: ‘The Lord, the Lord, God of tenderness and mercy, slow to anger, rich in grace and faithfulness, who keeps his grace to thousands, tolerates fault, transgression and sin, but leaves nothing unpunished, and punishes the sins of fathers on children and grandchildren until the third and fourth generation!’ »iii

So Leibniz’ idea is that there are thirteen prophecies densely concentrated in these two verses. One may conjecture that each ‘prophecy’ seems to be associated with one specific word.

Here they are, as far as I can reconstruct them:

The first ‘prophecy’ is: « YHVH (יהוה) ».

The second one: « YHVH (יהוה) ».

The third: « God » (אל).

The fourth: « Clement » (רחום).

The fifth: « Merciful » (חנון).

The sixth: « Slow to anger (אפים) ».

The seventh: « Full (or rich, רב) » – more precisely, « rich in goodness (חסד) and truth (אמת) ».

The eighth: « He keeps his kindness (or favor, חסד) to thousands ».

The ninth: « He tolerates fault (or crime, עון) ».

The tenth: « And the transgression (or rebellion, פשע) ».

The eleventh: « And sin (חטאה) ».

The twelfth « But he leaves nothing unpunished (לא ינקה) ».

The thirteenth: « And he punishes the sins (עון) of the fathers on the children and on the little children ».

Observations are required, from a critical and heuristic point of view.

First of all, we count as two separate and distinct prophecies, the two statements that Yahweh makes of the name YHVH, and as a third the name EL.

Then each attribute (clement, merciful, slow, full) is counted as a prophecy.

There is the special case of « full of goodness and truth », which is counted as a prophecy. Why not count two? Because the adjective « full » is mentioned only once, and because God wants to make it clear that « goodness » and « truth » are inseparable, and must be counted as « one ».

For the verb « he keeps », let us count a prophecy, since God only keeps his goodness.

For the verb « he tolerates », let us count three prophecies, since God tolerates fault, rebellion and sin.

Finally, let us count two prophecies that refer to punishment.

Then, let us note that God cries out twice his name YHVH, but once his name EL.

He shouts four of his attributes, then he shouts four verbs. The first, to keep, applies to only one thing, kindness, but for the benefit of thousands. The second, to tolerate, applies to three negative things. The third, to leave, is used in a negative, therefore absolute, total way. The fourth, to punish, applies over four generations.

It is surely worth noting that three words are quoted twice: « YHVH », « goodness », and « fault », and that one word is quoted three times in the last verse: « the sons ».

There are also questions about some apparent inconsistencies:

God « tolerates fault » but « he leaves nothing unpunished », which seems contradictory.

Moreover, « he punishes the sins of the fathers on the sons and the sons of the sons », which seems unfair.

Let’s take a closer look at this last point, referring to the dictionary. The verb « to punish«  is in the original Hebrew: פקד. This word has a very rich palette of meanings. Here are some of them: « to seek, to visit, to examine, to remember, to punish, to avenge, to lack something, to deprive, to entrust something to the care of another ».

This verb can be translated to mean that God wants to « punish » and « chastise » children and grandchildren for their fathers’ faults, as it is written:

« And he punishes the sins (עון) of the fathers on the children and on the little children ».

But one could also opt for a broader, more generous translation or interpretation of פקד :

« And he seeks, or he examines, or he remembers, or he entrusts the care the sins of a generation to the care of another. »

Another what? Another generation?

Or might it be another ‘Other’?

Who, then, might be this other « Other » to whom God entrusts the care of future generations?

i Observations de Leibniz sur le livre du Rabbin Moïse Maïmonide intitulé le Guide des Égarés § C62

ii Ibid. § C54

iiiEx. 34,6-7