Jot or Tittle

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. (Matthew 5:18)

In one of those delightfully archaic phrases found in the King James Version of the Bible, Jesus tells his disciples that not “one jot or one tittle” of God’s law will change until heaven and earth pass away. The meaning is apparent, even if we didn’t know that a jot, or yod, is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet or that a tittle is one of those little marks that completes a letter, like the dotting of an i or the crossing of a t. Jesus is not just making a rhetorical point here. The Torah – the five Books of Moses containing all the commandments of the Jewish law – was believed to have been transcribed by Moses himself exactly as he heard it from the Almighty, with copies given to each of the tribes of Israel. Extreme care has been taken ever since to reproduce the Torah scrolls exactly as transmitted for use by local congregations throughout the world. The scribes are strictly forbidden from adding or subtracting so much as a single letter; hence, Jesus’ remark about not changing “one jot or one tittle.”

There is a story in the Talmud about a rabbi who tells a scribe, "Be careful in your work, my son, for your work is the work of Heaven. Omit or add a single letter, and you can destroy the whole world." According to Kabalistic tradition, each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet is a separate pathway to God with its own hidden meaning. When the letter is written or pronounced, its spiritual essence is awakened and given form. The Kabala’s earliest known work, the Sefer Yetsirah, states that “by giving them a form and shape, by mixing them and combining them in different ways, God made the soul of all that which has been created and all of that which will be.” In this way, he created the heavens and the earth, which is why a scribe could risk destroying the world by omitting or adding even a single letter.

The yod, which looks something like an apostrophe, may be the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, but it has more meaning than all the other letters combined. It is formed in a single stroke, a singularity from which every other letter is derived. Yod is the first letter of the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name (YHWH) that God revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai when asked to identify himself. This “infinite point” symbolizes both the oneness of God and all of creation. According to Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, it expresses “the power of the Infinite to contain finite phenomena within Himself and express them to apparent external reality.”

One is struck by the similarity between the Kabalah’s understanding of creation and the current scientific view. According to the so-called Big Bang Theory, the universe began some 13.5 billion years ago as a singularity – an unimaginably hot, infinitely dense point much smaller even than an apostrophe, as small as a subatomic particle, yet containing all the matter and energy in what is now in the universe. As to what went on before the Big Bang, before there was space or time, physicists cannot say. They can say only that the singularity did not operate according to any known laws of nature, as inscrutable as the mind of God. Perhaps then it is not so far-fetched to imagine the heavenly scribe with pen in hand, the universe as yet a blank page, poised to jot it all down.

Yitzchak Ginsburgh, The Hebrew Letters: Channels Of Creative Consciousness

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