The simplest sibilant letter of the Aleph Bet — the Samech — is a puzzlement. At every turn, this letter has proven resistant to simple meaning.
It began when I looked into the Torah reading of this week, Ki Tavo, and decided to delve into the doublet verse in which I first discovered the double pei.
While I have spent years contemplating the Pei itself, I never really thought to look closely at its context before now.
הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֗ה ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ מְצַוְּךָ֧ לַעֲשׂ֛וֹת אֶת־הַחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְאֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֤ וְעָשִׂ֙יתָ֙ אוֹתָ֔ם בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
“This day, HaShem your G-d entreats you to observe these laws and rules; and to observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.”
אֶת־ה’ הֶאֱמַ֖רְתָּ הַיּ֑וֹם לִהְיוֹת֩ לְךָ֨ לֵֽאלֹקים וְלָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֗יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֨ר חֻקָּ֧יו וּמִצְותָ֛יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֖יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֥עַ בְּקֹלֽוֹ׃
“You have affirmed this day; that HaShem is your G-d, and that you will walk in G-d’s ways, and that you will observe G-d’s laws and commandments and rules, and hearken to G-d’s voice” (Deut. 26:15-16).
There is something deeply profound about coming full circle right back to this letter that started it all, on this of all weeks, when I am beginning classes for my doctorate in Jewish History.
Despite preparations for courses, readings and introductions, scheduling and zooming as a new PhD student, because the sacred cycle of time has once again brought me face to face with the Doubled Pei, I am compelled to share the circular Samech with you. Let’s begin in an orchard.
The Symbol of the Orchard
There is an acronym for levels of study and interpretation of the Torah text: “Pardes”.
P = Pshat, namely the simple, literal, or evident meaning of the text.
R = Remez, allegory.
D = Derash, halachic and aggadic exegesis, and
S = Sod, secret or mysterious aspect of the Torah.
Together, this acronym “Pardes” means “Orchard”, alluding to the beauty, intellectual nourishment and spiritual satisfaction that comes through Torah study.
On the face of it, these verses in our reading are straightforward as arrows. The pshat is to uphold the mitzvot and laws of the Torah with all one’s heart and soul.
If we delve deeper, we find deeper layers of meaning. It was to the Rokeach that I turned this week, and at first his words puzzled me.
In his comment on pasuk sixteen, the Rokeach writes “Mitzvot la’asot et ha’chukim Samech le’dvash”. I read this and was at a loss. Translated literally, I thought it read: “To perform mitzvahs and laws Samech to the honey”.
In Support of Honey
What have the Mitzvot (commandments/laws) of these verses to do with the letter Samech? And what have both of these to do with honey? I was all the more confused because the letter Samech does not appear in either verse at all.
Fortunately, dictionaries exist. I turned to the word itself and was surprised to learn that Samech literally means ‘support’. The Rokeach is not speaking here about the letter, but rather the concept of support.
While his thoughts are so simply written in concise Hebrew, it has taken me days to grasp just what exactly the Rokeach is teaching us here. And I found it so profoundly connected to the letter Samech, as well, that we’ll explore both together in this brief time that we have.
Here is my translation of the Rokeach’s comment pictured above (I added the numbers for the sake of clarity):
- Mitzvot and laws support the honey, and are sweeter than honey
- One mitzvah begets another mitzvah. When the nation of Israel fulfills Mitzvot each and every day, we show that the Torah is as dear to those who study her as on the day she was given to us.
- Mitzvot support “The land flowing with milk and honey” because G!d entrusts us with the land in return for upholding G!d’s precepts and laws.
He brings a proof text from Tehilim 19 for his first concept, that the laws of the Torah are sweeter than honey:
יִרְאַ֤ת ה’ טְהוֹרָה֮ עוֹמֶ֪דֶת לָ֫עַ֥ד מִֽשְׁפְּטֵי־ה’ אֱמֶ֑ת צָֽדְק֥וּ יַחְדָּֽו׃
הַֽנֶּחֱמָדִ֗ים מִ֭זָּהָב וּמִפַּ֣ז רָ֑ב וּמְתוּקִ֥ים מִ֝דְּבַ֗שׁ וְנֹ֣פֶת צוּפִֽים
“Reverence of HaShem is pure, abiding forever; the judgments of HaShem are true, righteous altogether. More desirable than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb.”
All of the Rokeach’s points take the pshat of our verses from Ki Tavo and reveal remez by means of contextual comparison.
In the verses that precede and follow Deut. 26:16, the Land of Milk and Honey is mentioned twice (Deut. 26:15, Deut. 27:3). We have double sweetness, and so the Rokeach mentions sweetness twice.
His second and third points also delve into drash by bringing in aspects of halacha to the conversation which are not evident in the simple meaning of the text. His is an exploration of practice supporting principle. Let’s learn about samech–support– and then we can return to the Rokeach’s teaching.
The Letter of Reliance
It is the sod that we are after tonight: The secrets of the text. If we can possibly glimpse them, it will be through the first letter of the word itself, which is also Samech.
Samech: The very essence of this letter evokes strength, resilience, and support. Today, we scribe it as a circle: It is a cycle, with no definite beginning and no end. It is like a wedding ring, or the shape of a joyous group dance.
And yet the Samech is also a circle with a hollow center. Looked at another way, it is encaptured emptiness.
According to our tradition this letter is symbolic of G!d: It has a completely empty inner area, just as G!d has no physical form.1 The round frame encircling the emptiness alludes to the shape of the whole earth, which is filled with the divine presence.2 Rabbi Akiva teaches that the uninterrupted line of the Samech thus alludes to the infinitude of the Ein Sof, Who has no beginning and no end.3
Once we know to look for this concept, the name of this letter appears within our davening and our tradition in the most unexpected places. It is the phrase we use to define G!d as “Somech noflim”, the One Who Supports the Fallen.
This letter, too, is the root of the word “Smicha”, the term for rabbinic ordination. When a master sage “gives smicha” to his student, he is granting credence to his student to become a teacher himself, with his full blessing of support. In times of old, this process was performed through a ceremonial laying of the hands of the teacher onto the head of the student, symbolically passing on the mantle of intellectual and spiritual leadership in the same way that a parent blesses his son, and the same way that Moses passed his leadership of Israel on to Joshua ben Nun.
In Modern Hebrew, “lesamech bo”, means to rely upon, or to support another.
Samech is the fifteenth letter of the Aleph Bet yet its gematria, numerical value, is quadruple that: Samech equals sixty. Samech is formed as a balanced circle composed of two halves, our sages teach us, of two face to face Lameds (each of which is worth thirty).
What is the root of this symbol? That is what I wanted to know this week. And that is what I wanted to share with you.
Yet this letter, true to the root of the Pardes, is rather hidden. Secret. I haven’t encountered this before. Most Hebrew letters are rather revealed back to the beginning: The Reish is the Head (Rosh), the Yud is the hand (Yad) , the Pei is the mouth (Peh), the Ayin is the eye (Ayin).
And the Samech…what is it? What was it meant to represent, when it was first written?
A Secret Symbol
Every Hebrew letter began as a pictogram. This we know. There are many miraculous aspects to the Hebrew Aleph Bet, not least of which its being the first Alphabet in human history. What fascinates me is the relationship between image and word. The ancient Egyptians wrote in images, which required learning approximately 700 hieroglyphs.4
The ancient Hebrews created letters out of pictures, taking writing from a vast exercise in memorization to a simple, phonetic Alphabetical system of twenty two characters.
In this way, through the Aleph Bet at least, we cannot divorce our visual perception of the world from our aural and verbal expression of it. Indeed, the eye comes before the mouth in our Aleph Bet, to teach that one must perceive carefully before speaking.
Now for the Samech. If we compare the current form of this letter to our first recorded instances of it, you might be surprised, as I was, at how different they appear.
At first glance, the earliest form of the Samech looks more like a the Chinese character than a Hebrew one. In fact, at first glance, it strongly reminded me of the Chinese character for tree.
My research into the original meaning of the Samech has been brief yet deep. Because of my heuristic approach to this article, I imagine my understanding of Samech will change over time as I gather more sources – especially paleographic and archaeological evidence – but for now, I do believe I’m on to something.
Let’s explore a few possibilities together, then connect back to the sweet lessons of the Rokeach on our sedra.
Alternate understandings of this Samech symbol by various thinkers interpret it as follows:
- Djed (Egyptian sacred pillar)
To be frank, none of these interpretations ring true for me. I don’t think a person who draws a fish skeleton would set the ribs at right angles, and the same doubt holds for an image of a thorn. Both would probably include diagonal dashes from the central element, and one might naturally expect a thorn to be pointy. Neither of these first two interpretations makes sense given the meaning of the word itself, the pictogram chosen to unequivocally represent “Support”. A fish and a thorn aren’t exactly the most supporting actors in nature.
The third interpretation is compelling at first. Here is an example of a Djed:
While there is a strong similarity in shape, this interpretation is also difficult to accept as the source for our Samech. For a nation such as the Hebrews, who originated and introduced Monotheism to the world, to include another religion’s sacred pillar as a letter in their own sacred language is, by my thinking, incomprehensible.
I was contemplating these themes of support, not sure how to move forward, when I was fortunate enough to speak with my sister. A visual being like I am, and a quicker thinker, I had but to briefly describe the shape of the original Samech over the phone, the many possibilities, and the meaning of the term, before she said, “What if it’s a spine?”
There is something to this theory that made me catch my breath and look deeper.
Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the djed pillar represents stability and is a symbolic image of the sacred spine of Osiris.
Similarly, I believe the Samech represents not the djed, but the spine. Both ancient symbols (samech and djed) come from two different, deeply religious, cultures. Both represent that thing which is the inherent definition of support to every human being: The pillar of our own spine.
This image is the symbol of support. Our spine is one of the key factors that classifies us as humans and mammals, by nature of our being vertebrates.
Could the original Samech be a pictogram of the human backbone?
If so, this symbol would neither be a fish nor a thorn nor a sacred Egyptian pillar, but instead a vertical line of the spine, crossed by three vertebrae culminating in “atlas” and “axis”– those two vertebrae supporting our head and neck.
Is there a more elemental image of support than one’s own straight spine, the mainstay of our skeleton?
The Shifting Samech
Over time, the Samech shifted. The skeleton wrapped around to form an ouroboros: a round image with no end.
In truth, I see no contradiction between the first and final forms of the Samech. If the symbol of the Samech is the spine, then the letter’s various forms simply view the vertebrae from different perspectives.
Dorsal view of the Cervical spine (neck)
Atlas: First vertebra of the cervical Spine that supports the globe of the skull
Let’s return to the Rokeach. A moving aspect to the Rokeach’s comment on our verse is how he not only highlights the concept of support, he does so by stressing the aspect of partnership. He reveals the divine-human relationship extant in the covenant.
Why uphold the Torah, as our verses, first verbalized by Moshe, request? Performing Mitzvot is not only sweetness itself, says the Rokeach, but it is our half of the bargain. The sweetness of acting in accordance with Torah morals and values should, by definition, bring peace between ourselves and others, within ourselves, and between us and the powers that be. Everything good needs structure to thrive. Whether we draw our honey from the hive or from the date palms, whether it is physical or spiritual, sweetness must be supported, enclosed and protected to be preserved.
There is another reward to this sweetness, and that is moral momentum.
As Ben Azzai would say: “Run to pursue a minor mitzvah, and flee from a transgression. For a mitzvah brings another mitzvah, and a transgression brings another transgression. For the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the reward of transgression is transgression” (Pirkei Avot Chapter 4 Mishnah 2).
The Rokeach goes even further. Because our two verses on upholding the Mitzvot of the Torah and her laws are framed by two others which describe the Land of Israel as the “Land of Milk and Honey”, the Rokeach draws this conclusion:
Maintain the laws of the Torah and we will be granted the privilege to maintain the Land. The sweetness of learning Torah is our key to dwelling in the sweet land of milk and honey, in peace, with prosperity within and protection without.
In times past, when the nation of Israel has thrown away this key, the land itself has thrown us out. Yet, as we keep the Torah, so she keeps us. If we hold fast to our obligations, weighty though they sometimes are, and renew it afresh on a daily basis, so shall the Ein Sof support us as a strong nation in our homeland.
So as not to embarrass the letter Samech, we must now quote a source that supports him in something more than name alone. Consider the concluding concept from the book of Kohelet:
ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְותָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃
“The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere G-d and keep G-d’s commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
כִּ֤י אֶת־כָּל־מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כָּל־נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם־ט֖וֹב וְאִם־רָֽע
For G-d will bring every deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Eccl. 12:13-14)
What is the end, the true end, of all human endeavor, pursuit, and consequence? All circles back to the Samech. According to tradition, the word ס֥וֹף is here written with an enlarged Samech.
The secret of the Samech, as I see it, is that it began life over three thousand years ago as a symbol of the spine: The human side of support. Imperfect yet striving upwards.
And today, it is become the circle: The symbol of divine support. Only the divine is like the Samech: Perfect. Whole.
G!d can only rely on and support human beings insomuch as humans rely on and support G!d. So teaches the letter Samech.
Interpreting the Samech is some kind of exquisite test of eye and mind, heart and soul.
When one looks to the Samech, what do we see?
Is the heart hollow, empty, void of meaning? Or is it rounded out and filled to the edges with the omnipresence of the divine?
If we are each a Samech, we live up to that legacy when we stand tall and strong, straight-backed in moral support of ourselves and others, and objective morality.
If we are each a Samech then there are times we feel the void within.
All of the book of Kohelet is a struggle to answer that void. And in his wisdom, Kohelet says: Do not seek to answer the void with avoidance, with seeking after sweetness of appetite or coin. Rather, answer the call to the void with the call to the Creator of the void.
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh writes that “the true “end of the matter,” commitment to Torah and Mitzvot, is not a real ending but rather the beginning of fulfilling one’s purpose in life. The end of the world and its vanities in the consciousness of man[kind] is the beginning of the service of the soul”.5
When all is said and done, the enclosed circle of the Samech is not empty, at all. It’s filled with light and with meaning, but these might just be invisible to the eye. They have to be sought after and sensed–not by the body, but by the soul.
Here is what it means to uphold the covenant: Look into the void and see not emptiness but holiness.
A parting thought. Our oldest surviving Torah text is in fact not on parchment or on stone. It is some five hundred years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is the Birkat Cohanim, the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:24-26), that was inscribed on a thin piece of silver, likely worn as an amulet, and found in old Jerusalem.
This protective, poetic blessing is what our Cohanim and our parents bless us with on Shabbatot and on festivals, on holidays and in times of need.
The blessing itself has sixty letters, the value of the Samech. What’s more, the Cohanim create the open shape of the Samech with their hands when reciting this blessing. So sacred is this act, that even the youngest Jewish child knows not to look at the void created between the thumbs and forefingers of the Cohanim when they hold up their hands to bless the congregation, as the divine light that shines therefrom is so powerful it can be blinding.
Let’s part this time with words of blessing. May all voids be filled, not with darkness or doubt but with light. May we all find, and give, and be given, the support we each need. May these words protect and defend, enclose and support us as they have since first benediction began:
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ
יָאֵ֨ר ה’ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם
May G-d Bless you and keep you
May G-d shine G-d’s Countenance upon you and give you grace
May G-d bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.
With profound thanks to my family for their unflagging and courageous support,
and especially to our grandmother, who is the אֹמֶץ לֵב of our family. ברכות גזונט און מזל און גליק עד עולם.
Benner, Jeff. <www.ancient-hebrew.org>.
Brown, Driver, and Briggs Dictionary: סָמַךְ. <http://www.ericlevy.com/revel/bdb/bdb/15/sam-Index.html>
Brunner, Hellmut and Dorman, Peter F. “Hieroglyphic Writing”. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.: March 21, 2019. Accessed Sep. 3, 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/hieroglyphic-writing>
“Djed-Pfeiler”. Ars Mundi: The World of Art. Accessed Sept. 2, 2020. <https://www.arsmundi.com/en/artwork/djed-pillar-012313.html>.
Gal Einai. “Pirkei Avot 4:2: The Natural Connection”. Accessed Sep. 2, 2020. <https://www.inner.org/uncategorized/pirkei-avot-42-the-natural-connection>.
Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. Ed. A.E. Cowley and E. Kautzsch. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1909. <https://archive.org/details/geseniushebrewgr00geseuoft>; <https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Gesenius%27_Hebrew_Grammar>.
Ginsburgh, Rabbi Yitzchak. The Hebrew Letters: Channels of Creative Consciousness. Ed. Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman and Rabbi Moshe Yaacov Wisnefsky. Gal Einai Publications: Jerusalem, 1992. pp. 221-235.
Gold, Rabbi Avie. Baal HaTurim Chumash: The Torah with the Baal HaTurim’s Classic Commentary. Trans. Rabbi Eliyahu Tauger, des. Rabbi Sheah Brander. Mesorah Publications, 2003. pp. 2114-2118.
Israel Museum, “Priestly Benediction” on amulets, From the Israel Museum publications: The Israel Museum, Harry N. Abrams, Inc: 2005. <https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/198069>
Munk, Rabbi Michael L. The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet: The Sacred Letters as a Guide to Jewish Deed and Thought. Ed. Rabbi Nosson Scherman and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.: Brooklyn. 2019. pp. 159-170.
Pirush HaRokeach al HaTorah, Bamidbar – Devarim. Klugman: Jerusalem. p. 247. (Hebrew) Commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Elazar HaRokeach.
Deut. 26:16-17. Scholars’ Gateway beta. Accessed Sep. 2, 2020. <https://scholarsgateway.com/search/WLC/Deuteronomy/26:16-17>.
Scholars’ Gateway beta. “עצה”. Accessed Sep. 2, 2020. <https://scholarsgateway.com/word/עצה>.
English Translations adapted from:
Hebrew Words for Spine: עַמּוּד הַשִּׁדְרָה, שִׁדְרָה; גַּב; כֹּחַ, סְבֹלֶת; קוֹץ
Backbone: עַמּוּד הַשִּׁדְרָה; אֹמֶץ לֵב