God’s Scrabble Game

According to Jewish mystics, creation was a kind of divine Scrabble game in which God used all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (and 10 numbers, too) to spell out the world. The letters, originally part of God’s crown, were inscribed with a pen of fire. Before the world was made, they stood around God, each vying for the privilege of being the first to be used in the act of creation. The letter bet was chosen because it was the initial letter of berakhah, or “blessing.” And so it was that God created the world through the letter bet, as it is written, “Berashith [In the beginning] God created the Heaven and the Earth.”

The letters of the Hebrew alphabet are believed to be direct emanations from God and have great symbolic meaning. By combining two or more letters in various ways, it is possible to make not just words but a whole world in time and space, with a depth of meaning far greater than the words alone could convey. The letters are regarded as indestructible. Scribes were strictly enjoined from making the slightest alterations in holy writ, lest they inadvertently destroy creation. Prophets were similarly forbidden from embellishing the words they were given to speak. The prophets were speaking on God’s behalf, and the scribes were transmitting God’s words, exactly as they had been given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, down to the last jot and tittle.

In the biblical creation story, God creates heaven and earth when he calls them forth by name. “Let there be light,” he commands, and the firmament is suddenly ablaze. Last of all he summons forth a creature like himself, made in his own image, who is likewise given the power to name. The text reads: “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” To name a thing, according to ancient Jewish tradition, is to define its essence – literally to call it into being.

When a name is pronounced or letters of the Hebrew alphabet are put to use, their spiritual essence is awakened and their forms become manifest. According to the esoteric literature, this was not only the process by which God created the world, but it can also enable spiritual adepts to create living beings of their own. In medieval folklore, certain rabbis in Eastern Europe were able to make a man from clay and to animate him by putting the name of God or other sacred words into his mouth or on his forehead. Like Frankenstein's monster, this creature, known as a Golem, would occasionally run amok, forcing the rabbi to remove the words that gave him life.

We would do well to exercise the same care with the spoken and written word that God did when he first called the world into being. The scribes and prophets labored under the burden that the words they used had the power to create and to destroy. And so it is with us. Outwardly, it would seem, few of us have the power to remake the world with our words. But inwardly, in the small worlds we inhabit individually, we cannot help but do so, and the effects are felt much more broadly than we can imagine – not the least upon ourselves. "Swifter than light the world converts itself into that thing you name," Emerson once wrote in his journal. And so we must take care, remembering that God, who made heavens and earth with his words, began his work by pronouncing a blessing.

Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible
Genesis 2:19

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