In Judaism there was an early and sustained fascination with letters, their power and meaning. The roots of letter esotericism could be said to go back as far as the book of Genesis itself. God commands, things obey. This process was accomplished by the medium of speech. In Pirkei Avot 5:1, one of the earliest rabbinic texts, we read that God created the world by ten utterances. As speech consists of sounds represented by letters, it is logical to conclude that letters themselves have power and intrinsic meaning. Letters have individual sounds and in different combinations yield different words with different meanings. Ayin-Nun-Gimel is oneg- delight. Change the sequence and you get nega- blight or disease. God didn't say "kartina maslom" and there was light. He said "wa-yehi or." For the ancient Jewish exegetes the word choice wasn't arbitrary or randomn.
As an example of this, the Tabernacle in the wilderness was believed to be modelled after the cosmos. Bezalel the architect and craftsman who constructed the tabernacle, knew,
How to combine the letters by which the heavens and earth were created. It is written here (Exod. 35:31): "And He hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding, and in knowledge." It is written elsewhere (Prov. 3:19): "The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens."That is to say, Bezalel knew which letters were used in which combinations in order to bring about the desired results.
It is also written (Prov. 3:20): "By His knowledge the depths were broken up."
In 3rd Enoch the theme of mystical creation by letters is continued.
Rabbi Ishmael said: ‘Metatron said to me: “Let me show you letters out of which heaven and earth were created. Letters out of which oceans and rivers were created. Letters out of which mountains and hills were created. Letters out of which trees and grass were created. Letters out of which the stars and constellations, the moon and the sun, Orion and the Pleiades and all kinds of lights of the ﬁrmament were created. Letters out of which the ministering angels were created, each letter ﬂashed time after time like bolts of lightning, time after time like torches, time after time like ﬂames, time after time like the rising of the sun, moon, and stars.” I approached him, and he seized me with his hand, lifted me with his wings, and showed me all those letters that were engraved with a pen of ﬁre on God’s throne, and ﬁery sparks and lightning were coming out of them and covering all the chambers of the seventh heaven.’The five openings of the mouth is part of the classification system the Sefer Yetzirah uses for the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each "opening" is a position of the tongue for producing speech.
In a discourse by the Hasidic master R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (1730-1798), the letter heh, which changed Abram's name to Abraham, symbolised the five openings. Abraham was given mastery over the openings and the powers they regulated. According to the Chernobyler, in each letter of the alphabet is hidden some of the divine light which is what brings life and blessings into the world.
Abraham our Father so served God with love that he came to be called “Abraham My Lover” (Isa. 41:8). God gave over to him the conduct of all the worlds, placing within him this speech, centered in the five openings of the mouth. This is the meaning of God’s adding the heh [ = five] to Abraham’s name; it was through this that he became “father of many nations,” father and leader of the great host of the world’s peoples, by means of these five openings of the mouth…The power of procreation is linked to the power of creation, both being dependant upon the divine potency inherent in pure, divine speech. I did not include R. Menahem Nahum's discussion of the rung of sacred speech. Rungs of course are what allow one to climb a ladder.
His leadership is to be in all the worlds. That was why Abram did not father children; until he had reached the point at which speech was given to him, he could not yet be a father. Abraham did father children, for those openings of the mouth by which he conducted all the worlds had now been given him. Surely through that word he could draw forth offspring for himself as well.
Martin Buber, in his Ten Rungs, adapted a Hasidic interpretation of Jacob's ladder, emphasising the universal, ethical aspect.
Man is a ladder placed on the earth and the top of it touches heaven. And all his movements and doings and words leave traces in the upper world.The more traditional formulation is theurgic- by performing the commandments, man not only draws divine power into this world, but increases the power of Heaven above. In Joseph's dream, after all, the angels both descended and ascended upon the ladder.
The goal of man's coming to this lower world is to adapt himself to Torah and commandment[s], which are a ladder that stands on earth and the top of which reaches to Heaven, in order to draw down, by his performing the Torah and commandment[s], influx upon all the worlds, and to give power to the supernal retinue.For the Chernobyler, this is achieved primarily by means of pure, holy speech.
R. Meir ha-Levi of Apta, a later Hasid, provides another description of this process.
The supernal light is emanated into his heart, and the influxes go by his mediation, by the way of the five places of his mouth...Until Abraham perfected by loving service- acts of worship motivated by love- his ascent to the rung of sacred speech, he lacked the power to bring forth offspring. Having attained that rung, Abraham shared the divine power to create and to produce life. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl's homily stops short of pursuing the implications to their logical, but radical conclusion. Man is capable of attaining a level of holiness in which not only is God's power delegated to him, he governs the worlds also. This form of theosis is not post-mortal, nor is it eschatological, but available in the here-and-now through elevating the profane and mundane to holiness.
Babylonian Talmud, t. Berachot 55a.
Rachel Elior, "Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom," p. 108.
Arthur Green, "Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl: Upright Practices, The Light of the Eyes (Classics of Western Spirituality)," pg. 161-163.
Martin Buber, "Ten Rungs: Collected Hasidic Sayings," p. 34.
R. Aharon Shemuel ha-Cohen, translated in Moshe Idel, "Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic," p. 143.
Ibid, p. 204.