By Andrés Spokoiny
Every time you scan your purchases at the grocery store self-checkout line, you’re learning Jewish mysticism.
In 1948, the president of a Philadelphia grocery store chain came to the dean of the engineering department at Drexel University with a request: could someone design a system that would instantly convey product information at a store’s checkout counter? The dean turned the businessman down. But a young graduate student overheard the conversation, and was intrigued. The student approached his academic adviser, and together the two took up the challenge. Soon enough they had invented the barcode, a system so ubiquitous and so massively useful that it’s all too easy to take it for granted.
That student was called Bernard Silver, and he happened to be an amateur student of Kabbalah. Without his Jewish mystical background, the barcode system might have ended up looking quite different. Silver’s system conveys information so efficiently because it uses both positive and negative space to convey information – the barcode’s black lines and complementary white spaces echo, perhaps, the Torah that the mystics tell us is written with “black fire on white fire.” For a Kabbalist, not only are the letters in the Torah holy, but holy too are all the seemingly “blank” spaces in between.
This reverence for the written Torah derives from the more basic truth that in Judaism, words deliver sanctity. Our blessings are words, and so are our prayers. We use words to speak with the Divine, and God uses words to communicate with us. In Genesis, words create the world, and words establish relationships between Man, God, and Nature.
Shavuot is a perfect day to remember the sacred value of words. This holiday is multi-faceted, but among other things, it marks the moment in which the Israelites received the so-called Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. I say “so called,” because the correct translation of the Torah’s term Aseret Hadevarim is “the Ten Utterances,” or “the Ten Words.” The Geneva Bible of 1570 first used the term “Ten Commandments”; the King James Bible adopted it, and Charlton Heston brought it to Hollywood. (Sorry, DeMille, you got it wrong… Although, I grant you, “The Ten Utterances” would have been a bad title.)
Shavuot sealed forever our romance with the word. The 79,847 words in the Torah became the essence of who we are as a people. We interpret the text over and over, trying to decode its innermost meanings; we established an ongoing dialogue with those words that carries on after more than 33 centuries. Some Jews follow these words literally; some understand them allegorically; some rebel against them; but all relate to them. Those 304,805 letters (and every space in between) are the linchpin of our historical experience, our culture, and our character.
It is not surprising, then, that we treat all words – not just those in the Torah – with enormous reverence. Words are instruments of creation and healing; not in vain was psychology, the art of healing with words, a Jewish invention. But words can also be instruments of destruction. That dichotomy is seen in the legend of the Golem. The Maharal of Prague shapes a man from clay and gives him life by writing the word EMET (truth) on his forehead. He then kills it by simply erasing the first letter – the resulting word is MET (dead).
The potential for destruction with words is also reflected in Jewish law. “Lashon Harah,” malicious speech, is one of the most serious transgressions in Judaism. Out of the 44 sins that are listed in the Yom Kippur “al chet” confessions, roughly a third are related to speech. In the Talmud, speaking ill of somebody is compared to murder, and that notion passed on to Yiddish folklore in the saying “a patsh farhailt zikh un a vort gedenkt zikh” – a slap heals, but a word is remembered. (Contrast this with the English saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”)
There’s an entire tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, that deals with the power of words in the form of vows and promises. The details are complicated, but the overriding principle is simple: don’t make promises lightly, and, if you happen to utter one, be sure to fulfil it, because your words count. So serious is the non-fulfilment of a neder that we devote the opening moments of the most sacred day of the year to the prayer of Kol Nidrei, the annulment of ill-considered promises to God.
Today, remembering the importance of words is more vital than ever. The irony of our moment is that our words have never been more accessible and indestructible – just try to hide something ill-considered you wrote eleven years ago in the age of Google – and yet, perhaps relatedly, we treat them more lightly than ever. Slowly, we are being conditioned to believe that words are just inconsequential drops in a constant social media river, flashes in a tweetstorm that grab our attention for a fleeting moment until the next outrageous, but meaningless, utterance arrives. Words certainly don’t seem to be a vehicle for sanctity anymore, but rather instruments of hatred – tools to mislead, deceive, and misinform. As we enter the “post-truth” society, in which facts are indiscernible from fiction, we become careless with our words. Remember when the phrase, “I give you my word” meant the highest form of commitment? In a time of devalued words, that phrase merely elicits a disdainful grin. Imagine certain political figures saying that. You are grinning. I rest my case.
Judaism in general, and Shavuot in particular, teaches us that words matter. The Ten Utterances of Shavuot were “just” words, but they became the basis of civilization for two thirds of humanity. These Ten Words survived empires and armies, and reached the farthest corners of the globe. While most of the stone monuments of antiquity turned to dust, these words grew in importance. Upon them, mountains of other words were developed, each trying to give them even more relevance and sanctity. Such is the power of words: when we say the right words, and when we treat words with respect and reverence, we change the world. A combination of letters and sounds (and the silences in between) can carry the infinite universe on its back, can defeat time and bend space.
The bar code conveys information about a product. The words we say, and the words we don’t say, convey information about our souls, our values, and our qualities. As a community, the words we choose reflect and shape us. The polarization and the ugliness in contemporary Jewish discourse is a cause and consequence of our choices of words and silences. With our words, we have created a reality of divisiveness and extremism. With our silence, we are condoning it.
May this holiday of sacred words inspire us to deep reflection about our relationships with the word. May it encourage us to choose words that build and heal rather than those that destroy and divide. May we remember that words are the most inexhaustible source of magic that we have. May we imbue our words and our silences with kindness, meaning, and goodness, and let us cherish the invaluable words that our ancestors have bequeathed us.
Let us be faithful custodians of those words, let us use them as forces for good, and let us enrich them with each of our unique contributions to understanding them.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network.