The ABCs of giving – jewishpresstampa

Posted By on December 6, 2019

About a month ago, the internet was in an uproar over an updated ABC song that seeks to help children learn to separate the dreaded elemeno (L-M-N-O). Whats wrong with the old ABC song, people wrote. Are we mollycoddling kids too much? Why would you mess around with the ABCs? As it turns out, we have been messing around with the alphabet for thousands of years. Even the word alphabet is evidence of our monkeying around. It comes to us English speakers by way of the Greeks, who called their first two letters alpha and beta. But where did the Greeks get it from, and why do their letters sound so much like the aleph and bet of Hebrew, or the Arabic alif, ba, or Phoenician alef, beth? The very first written alphabet was not Greek, but a Semitic language closely related to modern languages like Hebrew, Arabic, and Amharic (spoken mostly in Ethiopia). It was the seafaring Phoenicians who taught the Semitic alephbet to the Greeks.

The names of the letters are the biggest historical clue (although thousands upon thousands of archeological finds help, too). Aleph is a word related to the Hebrew word ilef, meaning to train or learn. That, in turn comes from the ancient Semitic word alef, meaning a domesticated (trained) ox. Sure enough, the oldest alphabetic writing shows an Aleph in the shape of an oxs head (a little bit like an upside-down A). A similar story exists for all 22 of the Hebrew letters, which would eventually evolve into the English ABCs we know today.

However, this is no revelatory modern discovery. Even hundreds of years ago, the Talmud records relationships between the letters, their meanings, and their order (Shabbat 104a). In the early third century C.E., the young students of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught that the deeper meaning of Aleph, Bet was really elaph bina learn wisdom (of the Torah). Each pair of letters holds a special significance according to this passage of Talmud, and it all begins with learning the wisdom of the Torah. It is worth noting that the connections between the names of the letters are not mere puns, but rather they are profoundly connected by shared root words (a concept mostly foreign to the English language).

The following two letters reveal the central lesson of the Torahs wisdom. Gimmel and Dalet, according to the Talmud, should be interpreted by the lesson gemol dalim give to the needy. Our sages of old went even further, deriving hidden meanings from the shapes of the letters themselves. Take Gimmel and Dalet, for instance. If they are written next to one another in order ( ), the leg of the

.. Gimmel is reaching out toward the Dalet. That is to say, the giver reaches out toward the needy, and indeed we must run to do the mitzvah of giving to the needy in our community. We must chase after the chance to give.

There will always be some opportunities that present themselves naturally: someone on a street corner carrying a sign, or a grocery store asking for holiday donations in the checkout lane. Yet the truth is that unlike in Talmudic times, there are no needy families traveling door to door asking for food and shelter. They would probably be arrested in this age or worse. It is very likely that most of us will go through an entire day and not encounter a single needy person.

That is why the lesson of the Talmud to run to give to the needy is more poignant now, than ever. We must go out of our way and make a deliberate effort to find those in need of our help. Like the Gimmel, we must always be stretching toward the dalim (needy).

The story does not end there, however. The shape of the Dalet is facing away from the Gimmel, but a small part of the Dalet is actually reaching backwards. When we are in need, it is incumbent on us to seek out the help that we need. I believe that this applies not only to financial need, but also to our emotional needs. Too often, we fail to recognize our own needs for help, or worse, we expect others to predict and anticipate our needs. Just as the mitzvah of giving requires that we seek out opportunities to give, it also requires that we reach out at times of need to make sure that our own needs are met, whatever they may be.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association, which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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The ABCs of giving - jewishpresstampa

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