When the Hebrew Bible was first transcribed, the Jews used the newly-invented alphabet to write it. No matter whether you believe it was simply the Ten Commandments or the entire Five Books written in fire on stone by the Finger of God that Moses brought down from Sinai, or even if its core was fabricated by a bunch of authors in the 13th-8th centuries BCE, the medium must have been the alphabet.
Earliest archeological evidence, like the stone idol from Serabit el-Khadem, places the origin of the alphabet in the South Sinai (!) about sixty miles north of Mount Sinai, around the 15th-14th C BCE (!), just when tradition places the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
Hebrew for about four centuries after remained a primitive alphabet, lacking vowels, or spaces between words, or punctuation of any kind. It was scrawled boustrophedon – as the ox plows the field – that is, left to right until the end of the line, then right to left, and so on.
In short, the Torah that Moses brought to the Children of Israel was one long, breathless, written word. It awaited an oral enunciation to place the cuts between words and determine their meaning.
To quickly illustrate this, how would you read the following letters?
It would take some puzzling and context and familiarity to recognize this as
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
But lacking complete authority and assurance – nothing short of playing telepathy with the author – any reading would admit of several competing interpretations, including some that may seem at first nonsensical but may hide lurking messages if you stare at them too long:
In the big, no-nagged court doth have nine, death, or thee.
Hebrew readers to this day read texts without vowels and have to disambiguate individual words either by familiarity, or context, or memorizing them with the aid of another text with vowels. Consider the word in Hebrew דבר – DBR. The consonants could mean dvar (word), dever (plague), davar (thing), daber (speak), dibbur (speech), and others besides.
In short, individual words in Hebrew invite – even demand – that the reader play this puzzling game. This is the sort of game literature students encounter when they have to interpret opaque or dense poetry (John Donne’s works are my favorite) or literature filled with word play and deliberate punning, like Joyce’s Ulysses.
But because Hebrew words lack vowels, they are something denser. Let’s call them not -yet-words. Words are instructions for speech like musical notes, cues for sound. Consonants are the hard sounds stuck in the mouth that await the explosive of a vowel to be pronounced. Try to pronounce ‘T’. All you have is the instruction for placing the tongue at the top of the mouth, behind the upper teeth, waiting for a vowel for it to burst forth.
All words in Hebrew without vowels are to some extent not-yet-words, lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, not-yet-utterable. If so, then all Hebrew texts written without vowels – even a grocery list (see A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance) – are a form of literarature, one might even say poetry: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretations.
Compared to the ideal of clarity we inherited from the Greeks, who perfected the alphabet by adding vowels, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. The eminent Yale scholar of the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, Eric Havelock, declared that the ancient Hebrews could not hope to create a true (read “Greek”) literature. His libel was meant to be huffy Brit prejudice, but he was right, though for the wrong reasons. He assumed that the primitiveness of the Hebrew mind, its theocratic social organization, and the impoverishment of its alphabetic script, could not conceive the elevated thinking, clarity, and expressiveness of classical Greek.
On the contrary. The essence of the early Hebrew script generates complexity, the play of multiple meanings, divine punning. Hebrew is already a form of high literature, inviting interpretation of almost every word. Indeed, the question What is literary? makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to a Hebrew communications technology and textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never-quite-words.
Letterature… and prayer
In reading Hebrew, I propose that we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature. Sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word. We shuttle back and forth in interpretive tension attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.” I think he meant because anything written in Hebrew comes with this fictive suspense always already lambent in the very medium – a defective script missing vowels.
Perhaps we can extend this lesson of reading in Hebrew to an aspect of all reading. The truth value of any text is suspended between the ever-threatening catastrophe of ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy – clearly understanding what’s in the Mind of the Author, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical and cognitive plane.
I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you), but this sure feels how I take and am seized by mine, in all its debilitating pleasure and transporting joy. A good poem or a dense novel exiles us for a time to an inward realm. We read and get lost somewhere in the wilderness between multiple competing possibles and mutually-enriching meanings. If we linger there long enough and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come.
Reading Hebrew thus becomes the Ur-type of literary reading: a devotional, a form of prayer, and the engagement with its letterature a form of liturgy.