Dedicated as an ilui neshamah to Yiftach Yefetz z”l, partner of Noya Taiber, one of the 1,300 killed al kiddush HaShem on Shabbat Simchat Torah 5784 in Eretz Israel, during the Pogrom of October 7th, 2023.
What I want to do is tear the garments over my heart, put ashes on my head, and cry in the gutter of the city center
What I must do is don my wedding dress, place a veil on my head, and step up on the dressmaker’s stage for my final fitting
What I want to do is cut off my all hair as a sign of mourning
What I must do is visit the stylist for a simple trim and planning session to prepare my curls for my wedding day
What I want to do is fast day and night
What I must do is eat and drink to strengthen myself to dance at my wedding
I want time to stop
I want creation to end
But time flows forward and G-d has not yet destroyed the whole world: We must keep living
I want to cancel our wedding but my grandmother ruled that we must hold it
I do not want any music but a Jewish wedding must have it
I want to weep
But my beloved brings me laughter
In the moment before the world changed this past Shabbat Simchat Torah, I was sharing words of Torah with my Chatan and his best man all about the letter Dalet. I was puzzled by a connection I had not yet seen between two ideas: the doorway and the ear.
I asked: What is the connection between the ear and the door in the Torah?
What follows is what was born from that discussion.
Dalet: Opening the Door
The letter Dalet (also pronounced Daled), What do we learn from her?
Two children were overheard teaching each other the letters of the Aleph Bet. The sages took note of what they taught and recorded it in the Talmud.
“Alef Bet, Gimel Daled…
What is Gimel Daled?
Gimel is the Gomel Chessed, the giver of lovingkindness, and he stretches out his foot and runs to give to the Dalet, the receiver of lovingkindness.
Why is there an extension on the back of the Dalet?
Because that is her ear: she is listening for—hoping for—help. Why is her foot not straight up and down, but angled to the right side? Because she moves towards the Gimel to tell him that she needs help.
Why does the Dalet face away from the Gimel?
To teach that one should give charity discreetly so that the poor person will not be embarrassed” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 104a).
These wise children schooled even the wisest sages.
Our letters are not just squiggles or chicken scratches that stand in for phonetics to impart words which hold the real meaning of ideas; our Hebrew letters are themselves meaningful ideas. They are themselves truth. They are themselves teachers.
Taught Dov Ber ben Avraham of Mezeritch, the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, “Each and every letter is an entire world.”
We now enter the doorway into the world of the Dalet.
Dalet is the receiver of lovingkindness. She is also the letter of our newborn year: 5784.
What has she to say?
The dalet says: listen
The dalet says hear
The dalet says accept help
The dalet says be open to receive
How does she teach us this?
Through her form, her value, her name, and her appearance as an extraordinary letter in the Torah scroll.
Part One: The letter Dalet
The Dalet is a two-stroke letter. In palaeography (the study of writing), the way in which a letter is formed is called the ductus. The ductus of the Dalet is twofold: a horizontal line, scribed from left to right, and a vertical line, scribed top to bottom.
Izzy Pludwinski, master Hebrew calligrapher and artist writes of the Dalet:
“Care must be taken in order to differentiate dalet from reish which it greatly resembles. Therefore it ought to have a clear “heel” on the upper right corner, jutting past the join with the vertical leg. The leg should not be placed too much towards the center of the letter; otherwise it may resemble a zayin.” (Mastering Hebrew Calligraphy, 10)
The shape of the Dalet is simple: one vertical stroke crowned by a horizontal stroke. Just like a doorpost and lintel. The lintel is not centered on the doorpost, however, it is mostly on the left side with a little overhang on the right.
This angled overhang is crucial: without it, the Dalet would be confused with its fellow letter Reish, the one with the curved head.
In terms of its shape, what is the origin of this letter?
Dalet is delet, the modern Hebrew term that every Israeli teaches his or her child as the term for ‘door’. Dalet is the ancient, ancient picture of a delet, an open door.
And yet, the Dalet is the image of the side of the doorway and the lintel above, not the entire doorway. If you were to sketch the whole door you would get a Chet; if you sketched the whole doorway plus the threshold you would get a tall Mem Sofit (final Mem).
So, if we are nuanced, the Dalet is not the doorway entire but rather the Doorpost.
The value of the letter Dalet is four. She is the fourth letter of the Aleph Bet.
Who knows four?
Four are the Aemahot: The Foremothers Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah.
Four are the wives of Yaacov: Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah whose strength and names together form BARZEL: Iron.
Who knows four?
I know four!
Four children ask four questions at the Passover table
Four cups of wine at the seder on Pesach represent l’chaims for four expressions of redemption from slavery in Egypt
Four are the letters in the Tetragrammaton, the sacred name of HaShem
There are four basic levels of Torah interpretation
We have four components to the Torah text (we will return to this)…
There is more but first we must discuss the poor.
Dalet means Dal: poor
Dalet means poverty. But do not limit yourself to thinking that there is only one form of poverty: financial. Lack of wealth is only the most obvious answer.
How else can a person be poor? Teaches Rabbi Munk, our sages expand this concept to include any deprived person (The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet, 79).
There is lack of courage. Weakness of conviction. Dearth of compassion, kindness, empathy, tact, thoughtfulness. These represent the poverty of character.
There is lack of lettering, literacy, schooling, lack of questioning of sources, lack of how to gather and interpret evidence, lack of defining terms, lack of basic general knowledge; these represent poverty in education. This also applies to Torah education.
There is the lack of prudence, the absence of good decision making, impetuousness and rashness in the tongue and in decision making; these represent poverty in wisdom.
There is the absence of strength, the poorness of physical ability, weakness in the limbs; these represent poverty of one’s physical body.
There is confusion, pain, black despair, anguish, sorrow, rage, or worst of all apathy where there should be clarity, equanimity, peace, hope, gratitude, compassion, empathy, serenity. These represent poverty in one’s mental wellbeing.
There is the abnormal limit of energy, sickness or illness where there should be vigor, ongoing pain where there should be none; these represent poverty in physical health.
Every human being is poor in some way. Otherwise, the ability to give would not exist.
Part Two: Hear O Israel
Now that we have used our sight to observe the form of the Dalet, what have we to hear from the mouth of the Dalet?
In the central prayer of the Israelite, today called the Jewish, people, we have the Shema. The Shema is our own tradition’s perfect Haiku: a three line manifesto composed of 5, then 7, then 5 syllables that announce the heart of our belief system and our faith and our conviction as Yidden:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃
Listen or Hear O Israel!
Our God is Our God
Our God is King
In this simple and profound statement, in this divine poem, we find not one but two englarged letters: The Ayin and the Dalet. The Ayin in the word Shema (hear) and the Dalet in the word Echad (one).
Why are these letters larger than all the others? One explanation is that the two letters Ayin and Dalet together spell the word Eyd: Witness.
Who is the witness?
Some sages say it is the nation of Israel who bears witness to God.
Others say, no, it is God who is Witness to the Jewish people.
Wait: You may tell me, Devorah, in Judaism we must always have two witnesses. One alone is not enough.
Good. Then there is no mahloket: there is no conflict of opinions.
Who are the witnesses?
Israel and HaShem are witness to each other.
And if you want to say there are four witnesses, we are taught that the heavens, shamayim, and the Earth, aretz, are witnesses to God giving the Torah to Am Yisrael (the Jewish people).
Another opinion: The same word Ayin Dalet, which we just read as Eyd, can alternately be read as Ad: Forever.
This contract at Sinai is a covenant with four witnesses that will last for all time.
Part Three: Receive
Remember we said that the shape of the Dalet is the doorpost?
“What does that have to do with listening? What is the connection between the doorway and the ear?” Devorah, the bride, asked of Shlomo, her groom, and Alexander, best man.
Said Shlomo: “The ear and the door are connected in Song of Songs 5.2; 5.4-5.6a:
פָּשַׁ֙טְתִּי֙ אֶת־כֻּתׇּנְתִּ֔י אֵיכָ֖כָה אֶלְבָּשֶׁ֑נָּה רָחַ֥צְתִּי אֶת־רַגְלַ֖י אֵיכָ֥כָה אֲטַנְּפֵֽם׃
דּוֹדִ֗י שָׁלַ֤ח יָדוֹ֙ מִן־הַחֹ֔ר וּמֵעַ֖י הָמ֥וּ עָלָֽיו׃
קַ֥מְתִּֽי אֲנִ֖י לִפְתֹּ֣חַ לְדוֹדִ֑י
“I was asleep,
But my heart was wakeful.
Hark, my beloved knocks!
Let me in, my own,
My darling, my faultless dove!
For my head is drenched with dew,
My locks with the damp of the night.”
“My beloved took his hand off the latch,
And my heart was stirred for him.
I rose to let in my beloved;
My hands dripped myrrh—
My fingers, flowing myrrh—
Upon the handles of the bolt.
I opened the door for my beloved…””
At this answer, Shlomo’s bride could not reply because she was speechless.
Said Alexander: “The ear and the door are connected in the verse where a slave who decides not to go free will have his ear pierced through to the doorway of the home of his master. As it is written in Exodus 21:1-6, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing… But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.””
Said Shlomo: “This teaches that the slave was mistreated. He was not given the means by which to become his own master. He is now bound to his master’s house instead of being self-sufficient.”
We looked closer and saw that Devarim 15 teaches us that he was given the means:
“If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever.” (Deut 15:12-17)
Devorah replied and said: “See, the slave was not mistreated; the verse speaks of love: I love my master, my wife, my children, says the slave, and he will not go free out of love. Also, it is easier to be a slave sometimes. You have no control over your own time; you have no agency. This means you have no decisions to make: you do what you are told to do by your worldly master. When your free will is taken, you have less to concern you and fewer moral dilemmas to stress you.”
Said Shlomo, “We must be careful when we speak of slavery.”
Devorah replied and said, “Yes. And in this case I am now speaking about the metaphor of mental slavery.”
She taught further: “There is a large letter Dalet in the Shema. The Dalet is teaching us to listen to the words of HaShem, to the teachings and to the moral principles and deep values set down in the Torah. We were slaves in Egypt and God set us free. We heard the four expressions of freedom on Pesach.
The first commandment we were ever given when we were born as a nation through the birth canal of the narrow place of Egypt, through the breaking of the waters of the Yam Suf (heard from Rabbi Hier at a lecture given at Brandeis University in 2011), was Rosh Chodesh: the commandment to keep track of Time.
We are meant to be our own masters and keep our own time. We are supposed to hear the still, small voice, of the divine, which is the voice of our own conscience. We are meant to exercise our freedom of will for that is the reason we were created: to do good in this world in the name of the One creator. If we give that all up to serve a mere human being, instead of accepting the gift of our freedom, we are essentially nailing our own ears to the door instead of walking through it.”
So the Dalet is teaching two central lessons: listen and receive. (Are these the same thing?)
We are also discussing two central relationships: The relationships of human beings and the relationship between humanity and God. This is the form of the Dalet: The horizontal stroke symbolizes our relationship to others. The vertical symbolizes our relationship to God.
We must hear from both directions, and we must learn to receive from both directions, too.
Part Four: Mastering the Art of Receiving
We have learned the the Dalet has an ear and she trains it towards the Gomel Chessed. The Large Large Dalet is the listening ear attuned to the divine words and the divine listening to us, too: this is a two-way relationship.
We have learned that the ear hears her beloved knocking upon the door, and all her love is stirred up at the sound.
We have learned that the one who chooses not to hear, to close his ear canal and stay a symbolic slave in servitude to the physical world, has an awl driven through his ear. This makes a second, painful hole as a piercing which reminds him what he has chosen and what is holding him back; what is keeping him stuck there at the doorway.
What we still have to learn is this: How can we become a Dalet and master the art of receiving?
I will tell you a secret: Some might think that one who requests help is selfish. This is incorrect. The Dalet represents utter selflessness. She who lacks something of her own. By vocalizing her need, her selflessness creates opportunity for others to help—for others to perform an act of lovingkindness, a mitzvah. She opens the door for one to have compassion on the Dalet. Her asking for help is only possible if the Dalet is humble of spirit. The arrogant do not ask for help. Ironically, the arrogant might need more help than all. In regard to an arrogant person God says: “I and he cannot dwell together”. The door to God’s house allows only for the humble of spirit, the selfless, to enter. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh teaches that “the doorway itself, the dalet, is the property of humility…the doorway through which the humble enter” (The Hebrew Letters, 67).
Aleph Bet, Gimel Daled Hei.
Rabbi Akivah teaches: “Why does the daled turn its face toward the Hei? Because…by turning his face toward Hei he acknowledges that it is really God Who grants him sustenance and that he does not rely on human help. This idea finds its expression in Bircas HaMazon, Grace after Meals, when we say, “Please, HaShem, our God, make us not needful of the gifts of human hands nor of their loans, but only of Your Hand that is full, open, holy, and generous, that we not feel inner shame nor be humiliated forever and ever.”
Based on this teaching of Rabbi Akivah, Rabbi Munk teaches that “the message we learn from the Daled is to have trust in the Hei, that is, HaShem.” (The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet, 84).
So how do we become a Dalet?
Through discretion and tact.
The Gimel, the Gomel Chessed, must always give in a way that preserves the dignity of the receiver (Munk 80). R’ Yonah cites the verse: Praiseworthy is he who is wise [in his kindness] for the poor (Psalms 41:2). The verse does not say “praiseworthy is the giver,” but the one “who is wise for the poor”; that is, he seeks to treat the poverty-stricken in a wise manner, with understanding for the other’s situation (Vayikra Rabbah 34) (The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet, 82).
Similarly, the Dalet, the Dal, must always ask in a way that preserves her own dignity and the dignity of the giver. Just as our sages teach us we should not delay in helping the needy, as Avraham ran to greet his guests, strangers though they were, and Sarah hastened to knead loaves and prepare a meal for them, so too must we not delay in asking for aid when we ourselves are in need of it.
So taught Daled when I asked her, most hesitantly and apologetically, for help: “Devorah, your need gives me, your friend, the precious opportunity to help you. Thank you for asking me.”
Teaches Rabbi Munk, Gemilut Chessed, acts of lovingkindness, “uplifts and enriches all who practice it, and ripens (gamol) their character (The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet, 84).
How to Be a Dalet:
- Realize that you need help
- Define what help you need, and how often you need it (once? Ongoing?)
- Think of the person most open and likely to help you, or to respond to you and point you in the right direction
- Reach out to that person at the proper time in a tactful way
- Be understanding if they cannot help or do not answer (Go back to step 3 if this happens)
- When the Gimel knocks on the door, open it
- When you are able, express gratitude
Dal was tired and lonely. She had bubbled alone during COVID in a dark basement apartment for twelve months. She missed singing around the Shabbos table. She missed meeting new people and turning strangers into friends. She missed being in the company of others, especially on Shabbat. The world began to open again but she did not walk through her door. Go Slow but Keep on Going taught the Lamed, gently. Ask for help, reprimanded her friend, Gimel. Ask for help, pleaded her sister, Tzadi.
So Dal did. She asked the Daled, late on Thursday, if she had a place for her for Shabbat Dinner.
“IT’S TOHU VAVOHU!” Daled replied, and sent a photo of an upside down apartment in the midst of a move. “But I can ask my host for Shabbos if he has room for one more…?”
Dal krechtzened. A Shabbat dinner hosted by strangers? She hemmed and Hawed. She thought and she doubted. She yearned and she was abashed. She considered saying No. But, in the end, she decided to ask. And Dal said, “Yes, please see if they can host me, too.”
Daled texted Aleph. Aleph said, “Yes! Of course! And out of courtesy let me ask my friend and roommate, Dalet, since he is hosting this meal, too”. And Dalet said, “Sure, I think we can squeeze in one more chair.”
And Dal was hosted by strangers at the meal, together with Daled, Dalet, and Aleph.
And the letters who were once strangers became friends
And the Dal and the Aleph grew to care for one another
And then the Dal became sick and the Aleph brought her soup
Then the Aleph became sick and the Dal brought him soup
Then they both recovered and explored the world together,
In learning and teaching and singing together,
And bringing other letters soup,
And the Aleph and the Dal realized they loved each other and never wanted to be apart again
So, one year after the letters met,
in the year of the Daled,
Aleph and Dal were wed,
By the letter Lamed,
As Witnessed by the Gimel, the Tzadi, the Daled, the Dalet,
And all the other amazing letters of the Aleph Bet.
One never knows the impact a single act of kindness can have on the world.
For the Gimel:
Every morning, every Jew on earth has the opportunity to say the following paragraphs as part of the morning brachot (blessings) called birkot hashachar. Here is a list of things you can do for others, and even for yourself, every day:
|אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאֵין לָהֶם שִׁעוּר:
הַפֵּאָה, וְהַבִּכּוּרִים, וְהָרְאָיוֹן,
וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה.
|These are deeds which have no limit:
the corners of the field left for the poor,
the first fruit offerings, festival offerings,
acts of loving-kindness, the study of Torah.
|אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוֹכֵל פֵּרוֹתֵיהֶם בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה,
וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לוֹ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן:
כִּבּוּד הוֹרִים, וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים,
וְהַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית,
וְהַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִים, וּבִקּוּר חוֹלִים, וְהַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה, וְהַלְוָיַת הַמֵּת,
וְעִיּוּן תְּפִילָּה, וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ,
וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם.
|These are deeds whose fruits are enjoyed in this world,
whose principal remains for the world to come:
respecting parents, acts of loving-kindness,
early arrival—morning and evening—to the house of study,
welcoming guests, visiting the sick,
providing for a bride, accompanying the dead,
absorption in prayer, bringing peace between people—
and the study of Torah is comparable to them all.
The fruit of kind deeds nourishes both giver and receiver, Gimel and Dalet.
And sometimes, the deeds build on each other, so that the stranger who walked through your door, that same soul you hosted out of lovingkindness last year, will this year walk through your door, yet this time as your bride.
With swift brachot of Peace over all Israel,
Chazak ve’Amatz Libkhem,
Be strong and of good courage,
Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan 5784
א׳ בְּחֶשְׁוָן תשפ״ד
As the divine name of HaShem is a quartet four letters, so too are there a quartet of basic levels of Torah interpretation and a quartet of components to the Torah text (see The Hebrew Letters, 77).
Basic levels of Torah interpretation (in ascending order):
Literal (פשט peshat)
Allusion (רמז remez)
Allegory (דרוש derash)
Secret (סוד sod)
The Torah text possesses four components:
Cantillations (טעמים te’emim)
Vowels (נקודות nekudot)
Crowns (תגין tagin)
Letters (אותיות otiot)
The tagin and the otiot are the black fire on the white fire of the parchment which contains the te’emim and the nekudot.
This quartet of components are our teachers, our wisdom, our inheritance, and our birthright. Their song is profound and heartwrenchingly beautiful, their song is our song, should we choose to sing it.
Gold, Avie, et al. [Perush Baʻal Ha-Ṭurim : ʻal Ha-Torah] = Baal HaTurim Chumash : the Torah with the Baal HaTurim’s Classic Commentary. 1st ed., Mesorah Publications, 1999.
Jewish Publication Society. Tanakh = JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh : the traditional Hebrew text and the new JPS translation. Student ed., based on 2nd ed., Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
Munk, Michael L. The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet : the Sacred Letters as a Guide to Jewish Deed and Thought. 1st ed., Mesorah Publications, 1983.
Pludwinski, Izzy. Mastering Hebrew Calligraphy. Toby Press, 2012.
Ron, Zvi. Ḳaṭan ṿe-gadol : otsar perushim ʻal ha-otiyot ha-ḳeṭanot ṿeha-gedolot ba-Tanakh. Ts. Ron, 2006. [Hebrew]
Questions for Further Study:
- What import does the doorpost have in Judaism? What do we put there, why do we put it there, and what does it contain?
- What is the Torah reading for Shabbat Simchat Torah in Israel? What is it in the United States? Do we read any of the Torah verses that Devorah writes about in this essay?
- What are some other reasons you can think of as to why the Dalet in the Shema is larger than all the other letters? Hint: What does the Dalet look like if it’s back is rounded? If the Dalet were misread as this other similarly-shaped letter, how much would that change the meaning of the verse?
- Is there a time in your life that you offered help to someone in need? How did you know that they needed help?
- Is there something you need help with right now but are having trouble asking for it or finding it? Who do you trust that you can speak to for help?
- What is trust? How is it built? What is the Hebrew word for trust, and what is the verb in Hebrew that means to build trust?
- What is the word for peace in Hebrew? Is there any place in the Torah where the word is broken? What can the brokenness possibly mean? (Hint: See parshat Pinchas)
- There is a concept in Judaism that every person is a letter in the Torah scroll. Without even one letter, the scroll is incomplete. Which letter would you be?
- Which Hebrew letter does your name begin with? How many steps does it take to write that letter? What does that letter mean in the context of a Hebrew word, and what does that letter mean to you?
- There is a tradition for Jews to daaven, pray, for one another’s needs using their Hebrew name. Is there someone who you know that you can daaven for? Is there someone you know whom you can ask to daaven for you?
This marks eight and thirty articles writ
Twenty two letters Aleph to Taph have i learnt,
work at least enough, i hope,
a little lick of honey