Letters of the Alphabet - The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism - Daniel Chanan Matt

The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism - Daniel Chanan Matt (1996)

Letters of the Alphabet


TWENTY-TWO elemental letters. God engraved them, carved them, weighed them, permuted them, and transposed them, forming with them everything formed and everything destined to be formed.

Twenty-two elemental letters. God set them in a wheel with 231 gates, turning forward and backward. How did God permute them? Alef with them all, all of them with alef; bet with them all, all of them with bet; and so with all the letters, turning round and round, within 231 gates. Thus all that is formed, all that is spoken emerges from one name.

Out of chaos God formed substance, making what is not into what is. He hewed enormous pillars out of ether that cannot be grasped.

When Abraham our father, peace unto him, gazed—looking, seeing, probing, understanding, engraving, carving, permuting, and forming—he succeeded in creation. Immediately God manifested to him, embracing him, kissing him on the head, calling him “Abraham, my beloved.”


PREPARE TO meet your God. Prepare to devote your heart. Purity your body and select a special place where no one in the world can hear your voice. Be totally alone. Sit in one spot in the room or the loft, and do not reveal your secret to anyone. If you can, do this by day, even for a little while, but the best way is to do it at night. As you prepare to speak with your Creator, to seek the revelation of his power, be careful to empty your mind of all mundane vanities. Wrap yourself in your tallit and put tefillin on your head and your hand so that you will be filled with the awe of Shekhinah, who is with you at this moment. Wear clean garments, all white if you can. All this helps immensely in focusing your awe and love. If it is night, light many candles, until your eyes shine brightly.

Then take hold of ink, pen, and tablet. Realize that you are about to serve your God in joy. Begin to combine letters, a few or many, permuting and revolving them rapidly until your mind warms up. Delight in how they move and in what you generate by revolving them. When you feel within that your mind is very, very warm from combining the letters, and that through the combinations you understand new things that you have not attained by human tradition nor discovered on your own through mental reflection, then you are ready to receive the abundant flow, and the abundance flows upon you, arousing you again and again.

Now turn your thoughts to visualizing the Name and its supernal angels, imagining them as if they were human beings standing or sitting around you, with you in the middle like a messenger about to be sent on a royal mission, waiting to hear about it from their lips, either from the king himself or from one of his ministers. Having imagined this vividly, prepare your mind and heart to understand the many things about to be conveyed to you by the letters being contemplated within you. Meditate on them as a whole and in all their detail, like one to whom a parable, a riddle, or a dream is being told, or like one perusing a book of wisdom, pondering a passage beyond his grasp. Interpret what you hear in an uplifting manner, approximating it as best you can. Based on what you understand of it, evaluate yourself and others. All this will happen after you fling the tablet from your hands and the pen from your fingers, or after they fall by themselves due to the intensity of your thoughts.

Realize that the stronger the mental flow, the weaker will become your organs and limbs. Your entire body will begin to tremble violently. You will think that you are about to die because your soul, overjoyed at what she has attained, will depart from your body. Consciously choose death over life, knowing that such death affects only the body and that thereby the soul lives eternally. Then you will know that you are capable of receiving the flow. If you then wish to honor the glorious Name by serving it with the life of body and soul, hide your face, fear to gaze at God, and come no closer, like Moses at the burning bush. Return to the physical dimension; rise, eat and drink a little, inhale a fragrant aroma. Return your spirit to its sheath until another time. Rejoice in what you have, and know that God loves you.


WHY DO we utter letters and move them around? I, a fledgling, will tell you what I experienced. Know, my friends, that from the beginning I felt a desire to study Torah. I learned parts of it and some of the rest of the Bible. But I found no one to guide me in the study of Talmud—not for any lack of teachers, but because I longed to be home, to enjoy being with my father and mother. Finally, God gave me strength to search for Torah. I went out, searched, and found. For several years I studied Talmud abroad. Still the fire of Torah burned within me—though I could not sense it.

I returned to my native land, and God brought me together with a Jewish philosopher with whom I studied some of Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. This only added to my desire. I began to explore logic and natural science; this wisdom tasted sweet for, as you know, nature attracts nature. God is my witness: If I had not previously acquired strength of faith through the little I had learned of Torah and Talmud, many of the mitsvot would have been ruined for me—even though the fire of pure intention blazed in my heart.

What this teacher revealed on the path of philosophy was inadequate. Then God had me meet a divine man, a kabbalist, who taught me the outlines of Kabbalah. Nevertheless, because of my smattering of natural science, the path of Kabbalah seemed to me nearly impossible.

Then my teacher said to me, “My son, why do you deny something you have not tried? You should try it. If you do not discover anything—and you are not perfect enough to attribute the fault to yourself—then say nothing is there.” Wherever he guided me, he would always define the matter for me in scientific terms—to sweeten it for me, so that my rational mind would accept it and I could enter enthusiastically.

I reasoned as follows: I have much to gain here and nothing to lose. If I discover something, I have gained; if not, what I already have will still he mine. So I placed myself on the path, and he showed me how to permute the letters of the alphabet, transpose them, play with their numerical values, and the other techniques outlined in Sefer Yetsirah. He let me explore each path for two weeks—until each form was engraved in my heart. So he drew me on for about four months. Then he commanded me to erase everything. He said to me, “My son, the intention is not to grasp any finite form—even the highest. Rather, this is the path of the names: Their intrinsic value is proportional to their degree of incomprehensibility. The less comprehensible, the higher. Eventually you will reach an energy that is not in your control; rather your mind and thought are in its control.”

I replied, “If this path is incomprehensible, then why do you compose books combining natural science with the divine names?”

He said, “For you and those like you among the philosophizes, to attract your human minds naturally. Perhaps this attraction will bring you to the knowledge of the Name.”

My mind did not accept it. But after about two months of meditation, my thought had been stripped, and I became aware of something sublime arising within. I set my mind to combine the letters at night, conducting them in contemplation—just a little differently than I do now. I continued this for three nights without telling him. The third night, after midnight, I was sitting with the quill in my hand and the paper on my knees. I nodded off—then suddenly saw the candle about to go out, as often happens when you wake from a nap. I rose to trim the candle, and I saw that the light persisted. I was amazed. As I gazed and contemplated, the light seemed to be issuing from me. I said, “I don’t believe it.” I walked throughout the house—and look, the light moves with me! I lay down on the couch and covered myself. Look, the light is with me still!

Those who know a little about this—and especially those to whom something has been revealed experientially—will rejoice in what I have written and find it fitting. But their difficulty will be that I have revealed all this explicitly. As for me, God knows and is my witness! My intention is for the sake of heaven. I wish that every person in our holy nation excelled me in this, that everyone was purer than I. Then, perhaps, things unknown to me could be revealed. For God, who is truly one, teaches all who are ready to receive—freely and in love. Since God desires us to imitate the divine perfectly, I cannot bear not to lavish upon another what God has lavished upon me. That is why I had to tell the story of my experience, because the only genuine proof of this wisdom is experience itself.


THE DIVINE mind pours upon us constantly, emanating its sacred abundance to us, for more than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to suckle. Let us do good deeds and engage in aloneness—sitting in a loft with books, myrtle, ink, pen, paper, and tablet, to combine the letters and draw the divine mind into us.

When you fulfill the conditions of aloneness in your room, you will attain the flowing abundance of the six sefirot emanating to the diadem, whose splendor dwells within your soul, and the abundance of the three upper sefirot, drawing them to the diadem and into your soul. These abundant flows, hidden from the senses, will appear to the eye of your mind as cascading water; they are nothing but sparks of light—white, pure, and dazzling—emanating to the diadem, from there to Moses, and from there to the mind within your soul. Enjoy this abundant rain. Offer thanks to God with neither speech nor thought. As it says in Sefer Yetsirah. “If your mind races, return to the place,” return to where you were before the thought. Return to the site of oneness.