Title: The First Ten Letters
By Rabbi Raffi Billek
Mosaica Press, 213 pages
When I was asked to review the book The First Ten Letters of the Aleph Bais by Rabbi Billek, I was quite excited. The study of the letters is fascinating. The Gemara in Shabbos describes what the shape of the letters means, and gematria is one of the classic ways of learning.
Two rabbanim who devoted time to this study are the Radvaz, one of the leading rabbanim in Egypt and Eretz Yisrael in the late 1400s-early 1500s, and the Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria. The Radvaz wrote the book Magen David, a Kabbalistic explanation of all the letters. The Arizal in the Eitz Chayim has an entire shaar on the letters and their shape.
This book is an important introduction to the topic. It is written in a fascinating format – in the form of a conversation. This style is the basis of the Kuzari, which relates a conversation between the Khazar king and the Jewish chacham. Using an interchange between a student and rebbe to teach an idea is probably best known in Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s book, Nineteen Letters.
This book joins the two genres together. It is set as a conversation like the Kuzari, but between a teacher and student, like Rav Hirsch’s volume. However, the author adds a modern motif. The conversation takes place on a flight from the USA to Israel and the two use the time to engage in a fascinating dialogue.
I will pick one short example of the depth in which the author explains one letter. The letter vav, when used as a prefix, means “and.” The author shows how the various concepts included in the letter, including its shape, numerical value, and place in the aleph bais share this central idea. Its shape is a hook; the number six refers to the days of the physical creation and is used to connect to the physical. This is just a short synopsis of the beautiful ideas presented in one chapter.
The book ends in the middle of the aleph bais. It only goes until the letter yud. This leaves us with a desire to see volume two, all the way to tav.
But there is an issue that I think is not only relevant to this sefer but is a general issue that needs to be thought about.
Baruch Hashem, we live in a world where many people desire to be exposed to the depths of the Torah. But there is a difficulty to surmount. How do you teach deep concepts to a student who does not yet have the background as a foundation to understand them? Shlomo HaMelech taught us that one uses meshalim – parables or metaphors. But allegories need to be relevant to the person who hears them. For someone from a secular culture, what comparisons do you use?
This is a general question in kiruv. Do you descend into the morass of secular culture to mine the diamonds? Or do you create a magnet of kedusha that attracts the souls that are seeking? Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s approach is that the latter approach is correct.
Why is this relevant here?
As I was reading, I began to see a pattern. First, there was a reference to a well-known movie, with a quasi-Jewish theme. Then there was a comparison to a popular entertainer who is known for his lack of delicacy, to put it delicately. And I stopped when there was a usage of an example of a relationship described in a way that I (and many others I consulted with) found completely inappropriate.
I can imagine in certain informal circumstances when one might decide that these usages are needed. That itself could be debated among the gedolim of the kiruv world. But in a mainstream sefer of ideas verging on the p’nimiyus – the inner dimension – of the Torah, I would think that this is incorrect.
I look forward to the next volume with the rest of the aleph bais in a format that avoids these downsides and that fully gives kavod to the Torah.
The Author Responds:
I want to thank the Jewish Press and Rabbi Zave Rudman for the generally positive review of my book, The First Ten Letters: Secrets of the Universe Hiding in Plain Sight. Baruch Hashem, I have received encouraging feedback about it, and of course, many questions as to when the next volume is coming out (spoiler alert: not soon).
I also want to comment on some of what was mentioned in the review.
Rabbi Rudman cites an example of “the depth . . . of the beautiful ideas presented” in the book. I feel compelled to explain further: the primary contribution I think this book makes to the topic of the teachings aleph-bais is not simply that it conveys deep ideas about this letter or that one. Indeed, when I told people I was publishing a book on this subject, many asked me how it would be different than the many others already in existence.
My answer is that this book is not a collection of clever vorts about individual letters. Rather, it is an integrated whole that demonstrates how the fundamental teachings of the Torah are brought out sequentially through the Hebrew alphabet. The conversation that takes place in the book presents a mentor teaching the basics of Judaism one letter at a time. This, I think, is the book’s greatest chiddush.
The other clarification I feel I must clarify is the description of the section of the book Rabbi Rudman considers “inappropriate.” I completely respect Rabbi Rudman’s perspective that one should not discuss a secular movie in a kodesh setting. As he noted, of course, there is much debate on this topic, and I don’t need to add to that here.
I do want to clarify that the material in the book truly is not lacking in tznius. Here is the section that Rabbi Rudman found “completely inappropriate:”
They bring him a wife that they’ve been training from birth to obey his every command. So he tells her to hop on one foot, and she does it. Then he tells her to bark like a dog, and she does it!
Is this an inappropriate relationship? Sure. Does it violate the standards of what ought to be mentioned in a sefer? I have trouble seeing that. That section is deliberately describing what we don’t want in a relationship, and this is a pretty tame example, I believe. Rabbi Rudman and the “many others” he asked are surely entitled to their opinion. This book was seen by many other ehrliche frum people before it was published (including the staff at the reputable Mosaica Press), and nobody else seemed to think this would be a problem.
Again, this is not to argue that Rabbi Rudman or anyone else is not entitled to their opinions or sensitivities. I just wanted to assure any potentially interested readers that the book is safe to read and that it is my belief you will only gain from doing so. That said, feedback on this or any other point in the book is certainly welcome!
Rabbi Raffi Bilek is a marriage counselor in Baltimore, MD, and a rabbi and coach to many across the globe at www.frumcounselor.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The First Ten Letters is his first book for adults.