Commentary Magazine

The Alphabet of Creation, by Ben Shahn

Twenty-Six Generations Before Genesis
The Alphabet of Creation. An Ancient Legend from the Zohar, with Drawings
by Ben Shahn.
Pantheon. 48 pp. $5.00.


The Alphabet of Creation is a legend from the Zohar, the mystic “Book of Splendor,” written in the 13th century, which, claiming a more ancient authorship, imposed itself on later generations with almost Scriptural authority. In the passage of revealed truth from the divine to man, the Zohar ranked second only to Torah and Talmud.

The present extract has been freely adapted by Ben Shahn, one of America’s outstanding Jewish artists. His slender text and forty drawings recount the rivalry among the letters of the alphabet for the glory of initiating the Creation.

Mr. Shahn’s pictures run through a generous iconographic range. There is a hand of God amidst an undulent morphology of wave or cloud; a lion rampant with extruded tongue; an Evil Inclination loosed from some romanesque façade; Falsehood, triple-faced and harpy-winged; a curlicue menorah and a golden calf; a tablet-flaunting Moses—horned in accordance with the Greek and Latin mistranslations of a Hebrew text (Ex. 34:29); and the face of the Merciful, rendered like a modern victim of merciless persecution.

The sum is an uneasy fellowship of modern, folk, and medieval; archaeology stalks by on feet of Klee, and proletarians alternate with romanesque grotesques. The unifying thread is given by the artist’s penmanship. His line throughout is drawn with dexterous gaucherie, with quaint suggestions of untutored authenticity.

Perhaps the most successful part of the illustrations are the letters themselves. Raw and giant-shaped, they make up an invented paleography, wrung from the deep, as it were, and barely cypherable. Their every jot carves itself strenuously into existence, like a swath of weary energy pushed through a hindering medium. These forms which, being formed, visibly hate to rest, these heaving aboriginal configurations are a far cry from the grave, serried squares of common Hebrew fonts. But we must remember that Shahn’s story is set twenty-six generations before Genesis, which antedates by a considerable margin the invention of standard movable type.

There is indeed a deal to be remembered and forgotten before any perusal of this book. Certain spiritual exercises may be recommended. The first will be to purge our minds of all we know about the current use of Hebrew letters for profane contemporary tasks. Second, we must forget our impious knowledge about the derivation of the Hebrew alphabet from Phoenician, hieroglyphic, or generally pictographic roots. More fitting is it to recall the Talmudic tale (told by Rav in the tractate Manukhot) that when Moses came to Heaven he found God engaged in plaiting crowns for the members of the aleph beth. Improbable, you say? Then you are caught still in the paganry of ancient Greece and modern science. For neither Eros nor hydrogen atoms, but the letters of the alphabet are the true firsts among the cosmic powers. “God drew them, hewed them, combined them, weighed them, interchanged them, and through them produced the whole Creation,” says the Cabbala.

Thirdly, we must shed all speculative notions about conventional signs and their function. For in the words of the anonymous author of the mystic Sha’are Tsedek (“Gates of Justice”) of 1295, “in the order of ascent is the cleansing of one’s soul from all other sciences which one has studied. . . . Being naturalistic and limited, they contaminate the soul, and obstruct the passage through it of the divine forms.”

This done, we will consider that Hebrew is the primordial speech of man and God, and that its letters remain ever holy. By way of confirmation we consult a page or two of Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquentia (“Of Common Speech”) whereof the following is a brief sample: “We ought to investigate to whom of mankind speech was first given, and what was the first thing he said, and to whom, where, and when he said it, and also in what language this first speech came forth.” Dante concludes that “a certain form of speech was created by God together with the first soul. . . . This form every tongue of speaking men would use, if it had not been dissipated by the fault of man’s presumption. . . . Therefore Hebrew was the language which the lips of the first speaker formed.”

Armed with Dante’s findings we turn at last to his (and the Zohar’s) contemporary, the Spanish Cabbalist Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia—whose doctrine is fully expounded in Gershom Scholem’s indispensable Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Abulafia’s aim is to “unseal the soul, to untie the knots which bind it,” that is, to release it from the tyranny of self, of wilfulness, of perceived natural forms.

But how shall the soul pierce the shell of natural things to know the unembodied, ultimate reality, the divine light? Mysticism being always practical and operational, the question is by what discipline the soul shall be trained for its ascent. What object shall be contemplated that will not hoop the soul in its own pinching finitude? What is there that can present itself as a spiritual substance—pure, wholly undetermined, infinite? The Christian mystic meditated on the Passion; Abulafia finds his diaphanous non-object—the only Real which, like God, has the perfection of immateriality—in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. They alone compose the inmost spiritual reality, the pure thought of God.



We pause to ponder the enormity of their significance. Almost ready—with bated breath and well-washed hands—we open Mr. Shahn’s new book, a signed collector’s item printed in Emerson type on Rives mold-made paper. And there on page one we learn how the twenty-two letters of the alphabet are engraved with a pen of flaming fire on the crown of God, whence they descend, one by one and page by page, to stake their claims in the Creation.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.