Brought to You by the Letter "Peh"

Thoughts from scribe-in-residence Julie Seltzer on what she's writing, her process, and the experience of writing a Torah on public view.

One of the questions I am often asked is, “Do you have a favorite letter?” The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (or 27, if you count the five letters that take a different form when they appear at the end of a word) feel in some ways like children. How can one have a favorite? But even with children the Torah reports to us certain leanings at certain times (“Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game; and Rebekah loved Jacob.” Genesis 25:28). Similarly, different letters bring unique joy, new connection, and insight at different times. Past “favorites” have included the Bet, the Gimmel, and the Chet. My current leanings are toward the letter Peh, and I’ll explain why. [These Hebrew letters spelled out, by the way, are all valid Scrabble words, FYI.]

The Torah is written in a special script called Ashurit. Even as script styles vary from community to community, as well as across time periods, they all fall under the umbrella script of Ashurit. An AshuritPeh” is very special. When you look at it – if you are looking at the black letter drawn – you see a Peh. And when you look at it – if you are looking at the negative space of the white parchment – you see a Bet (ב), the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Tradition tells us that the Torah is black fire on white fire. At the most basic level, this represents the black letters on the white parchment. The black words are the revealed Torah, and the space in between and around the letters are interpretations; secrets; the Torah’s inner soul. I wrote earlier about black fire on white fire. The white fire, the inner soul of the Peh, is another letter, the Bet. What does this mean? I’m not sure. But, like an M.C. Esher painting, it definitely forces a shift in perception.

Here are some thoughts about this perception play. Peh means mouth. You can perhaps see from the shape of the letter that it is like the opening of the lips, of a mouth. Other letters represent body parts as well, and were at one point pictographic. Examples include Yud (hand), and Ayin (eye). I like to think of the Peh as having an outside and an inside. Bet (the inner aspect of the Peh) means “in.” So, the inner letter of the Peh is literally that: in. It represents what does not escape the mouth. The mouth, being the place of transition between thoughts and speech, is the organ of creation. Similar to the concept of black fire on white fire, the black ink of the Peh represents what is manifest in the world; the inner space of the Bet represents everything behind and beyond–in our hearts, minds, and souls.


Kathy said…
I've gotta say, I love the Lamed. It's a huge letter and is more evocative of the "L" sound than our roman alphabet version is.
Elizheva said…
I also love the LAMED, for other reasons-- in particular, because it reaches so high and because it is the root of both to teach and to learn.

As for the peh/bet relationship, when I started to read Julie's blog on these two, I had an immediate association of the "Bet" being like an "beten," which is belly, or more specifically, a womb. "Bet" is also associated with "bayet" (meaning house.) I imagined that nestled in the "belly" of the letter "Peh" is a little house, from which could emerge new creations. As such, it's a little "Bet womb."
Elizheva said…
I also love the letter Lamed, but for other reasons. Most immediately, because it reaches up so high! I also love it because it's name, Lamed, contains the root of both the words for "to teach" and "to learn."

On other notes, as I read Julie's blog and the question of the meaning of the Bet within the Peh, I had an immediate association of it as a little "beten" or belly. Actually, more of a womb, than a belly. the letter Bet is related to the word "Bayet," which translates as house. So I imagined a little house in the belly of the Peh. And that house within would be the place of gestation and birth, through the Peh, making it a little bet-womb. I love these letters. Reading Julie's suggestion that words are the place of formation, that from the mouth idea becomes real, it adds to the possibility that the ideas grow in that bet/house/womb.
Elizheva said…
One other thought on this post: I love that the letter names written out are scrabble-worthy and I wonder if one could use either "gimel" or "gimmel," as I think post are in the original post (one in the illustration)!?

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