Secrets of the Five Special Sofit Letters

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha, we read how a year had passed since the Israelites had left Egypt, and God was now reminding the nation to commemorate Pesach. However, some people were spiritually impure at Pesach time because they had handled a corpse and were unable to take part in the Paschal offering. They approached Moses and asked “why should we be excluded so as not to bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed time, with all the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7) Moses was not sure how to answer them, so he took the case up to God, after which God told Moses about Pesach Sheni, the “second Passover” that could be done a month later in Iyar for those who had missed Passover in Nisan.

This episode is one of five times in the Torah when Moses was “stumped” by a question and had to consult God. The first was in Leviticus 24:11-12 with the case of the man who had blasphemed (nokev) God’s Name. The Pesach Sheni question posed above was the second. The third was the case of the mekoshesh etzim, the “wood-gatherer” on Shabbat (Numbers 15:32), followed by the Midianite episode when Zimri and Kozbi were involved in a public display of indecency (Numbers 25). The last was with the five daughters of Tzelofchad who wondered about their inheritance (Numbers 27).

These five questions (mekoshesh, nokev, tzelofchad, pesach sheni, kozbi) correspond to the five special Hebrew letters that have a distinct symbol when they appear at the end of a word: The “open” mem (מ) becomes a “closed” mem sofit (ם) while the “bent” nun (נ) becomes a “straight” nun sofit (ן), just as the “bent” tzadi (צ) becomes a “straight” tzadi sofit (ץ). The “coiled” pei (פ) and khaf (כ) unravel into the straight pei sofit (ף) and khaf sofit (ך). Together, these five unique letters are referred to by the acronym מנצפ״ך, “mantzepach”, and carry a tremendous amount of meaning. What is the origin and purpose of these special letters?

Letters of Creation

We first encounter a discussion of these letters in the Talmud (Shabbat 104a). The Sages state that the sofit letters were unknown to the earlier generations of Israelites and were only introduced by the later Prophets. The Talmud questions this and ultimately concludes that, of course, these letters are also holy and designed by God. What is meant here is that, in reality, these letters contained such great primordial secrets that they were initially hidden from the general masses. However, a time came when the Prophets decided it was necessary to reveal the secret of the five letters. These secrets are preserved in Kabbalistic texts, where the five letters are often referred to as the five Gevurot, “severities” or “strengths”.

Recall that, in the beginning, God “constricted” a space for Creation in a process called tzimtzum. He then shone His great light within that space to create a wholly perfect world. However, the “vessels” that held Creation together were unable to contain God’s unfiltered light. What followed was a shevirat hakelim, “Shattering of the Vessels”, scattering countless sparks of holiness throughout Creation that needed to be rectified and elevated back to their original positions. (For a detailed explanation of this Creation process, see here.) The mystical mission of each Jew is to affect that tikkun, to restore the spiritual worlds and thereby also perfect the physical world below. (This is the true meaning of tikkun olam, a term which has been redefined, overused, and misused in modern times.)

The five Gevurot letters were instrumental in restoring Creation during that primordial time, allowing for the world to exist, albeit imperfectly. The Gevurot became “channels” of severity, to help contain both God’s light, and His judgement. They hold together—for now—a disparate, divided world. This is reflected in the total numerical value of the five Gevurot, equalling 280, or פ״ר. In Hebrew, essentially every word that means a division or separation of some sort carries that same root of פ״ר, or 280. For example, פרד and פרש are both verbs meaning to separate, while פרץ is to break through something and פרס is to split or slice. The word פר itself is a bull, an animal domesticated specifically in order to plow and break up the soil.

Thus, the sofit letters have the power to “break up” impurity and restore holiness. In his excellent Understanding the Alef-Beis (pg. 17), Rabbi Dovid Leitner points out that 280 is also the value of רוח הטומאה, “spirit of impurity” (as in Zechariah 13:2). The five Gevurot, whose total value is 280, are able to neutralize the impure.

At the same time, the Gevurot letters have another, greater, numerical value, once again illustrating their power in channeling God’s great, otherwise overpowering, light. Continuing after tav, which has a value of 400, the khaf sofit has a specific value of 500, then the mem sofit is 600, and so on. The final tzadi sofit is 900, thus completing the numerical cycle in Hebrew, and bringing us back to aleph, which literally means “thousand”. Beautifully, an aleph is both 1 and 1000, the spiritual implications of which we shall return to below.

Letters of Rectification

When it comes to our actions, there are five major body parts that we use: the nose, mouth, arms, hands, and fingers. These are the parts of the body with which we do things. The legs and feet are generally only for mobility. The eyes and ears are passive sensory organs with which we cannot actually do any specific tasks. The reproductive organ is useless on its own, without being acted upon. That leaves those five body parts alone. The nose is the key to proper breathing and meditation. (Note how breath is neshimah and soul is neshamah.) The nose is also associated with making use of various aromas, both therapeutic and recreational, for better or worse. The uses of the mouth, along with its pros and cons, require no further explanation. The arms, hands, and fingers are the main tools for interacting with the world around us and getting things done. Therefore, the key to proper conduct, action, and spiritual rectification, lies in the proper use of these five body parts.

The Arizal relates these five body parts directly to the five Gevurot, each giving strength to its corresponding part (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Balak, Pinchas, and Matot). Pei literally means “mouth”, while mem represents the nose (a regular mem actually resembles a nose sticking out of a face, with a little nostril at the bottom, מ). Nun represents the arm, khaf literally means “palm”, and tzadi corresponds to the fingers. For those who are familiar with the terminology, the Arizal teaches that mem and pei are associated with the or makif, “surrounding light”, while the other three are for the or penimi, “inner light”. (Interestingly, the Arizal adds that the five daughters of Tzelofchad mystically represent the five Gevurot.)

More broadly, the ancient Sefer HaBahir states that the vertical nun sofit represents the spinal cord. At birth, the spinal cord is protected by 33 vertebral bones. These correspond to the 33 times that God is mentioned in the account of Creation. The first 32 times (corresponding to the 32 Paths of Wisdom, as explained in detail here) God is mentioned with the name Elohim, and the 33rd time with the first appearance of the Tetragrammaton. As a person grows, their vertebral bones fuse into 26, the value of the Tetragrammaton itself. And so, the Zohar (I, 24a and 147a) says that the nun sofit symbolizes the transformative process into the complete, fulfilled human. This complete human must be a male-female pair—soul mates reunited into one whole—and entirely rectified and refined to the highest degree, truly “in God’s image”.

While the human process of growth and refinement ends with the nun sofit, it begins in the womb which, the Arizal says, is represented by the mem sofit (Sha’ar haPesukim on Tehillim). The difference in value between the two letters is 100, representing the 100 “vessels” that every person needs to repair and fill (derived from the Ten Sefirot, each of which is composed of a further Ten Sefirot, totalling 100). The value of “vessels” (כלים) is itself 100. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that this is the true meaning of Pirkei Avot 5:21 that says how at 100 a person is like a dead body who is “removed from this world”. It does not mean that a centenarian is practically dead! On the contrary, it means that once a person, regardless of age, has repaired and filled all 100 spiritual vessels—they are “at 100”—any trace of evil within them is dead, and they become transcendent and angelic, as if they are no longer bound to the physical world. (See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, pg. 48)

Letters of Redemption

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 48) describes the five Gevurot letters as the “Alphabet of Redemption”. It describes how each of our patriarchs was somehow saved through the light and power channeled by one of the letters: Abraham through the khaf, Isaac through the mem, and Jacob with the nun. All of Israel came out of Egypt through the pei sofit. The only letter that remains is the tzadi sofit, reserved for the Final Redemption.

More than anyone else, it was the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) that expounded upon the tzadi sofit in Redemption. In Kol HaTor (published only in the previous century, to a great deal of controversy) we read a detailed exposition of what the “Birth Pangs of the Messiah”—that difficult period leading to the Final Redemption—will be like. The Vilna Gaon taught that there will specifically be טצ״ץ, or 999, “birth pangs” before the coming of Mashiach. This is the value of the tzadi sofit, the regular tzadi, and the mispar katan of tzadi (where every number is reduced to one digit). It is the last possible number in the Hebrew numerical system, before returning to the aleph. And this is the secret of the famous verse in Isaiah (60:21-22) that speaks of the Redemption:

And your people, all of them righteous, shall inherit the land forever, a scion of My planting, the work of My hands in which I will glory. The smallest shall become a thousand and the least a mighty nation; I am God, in its time I will hasten it.

The Vilna Gaon taught that the words hakaton ihyeh la’eleph, that the smallest one “shall become a thousand”, refers to Mashiach. As stated above, the aleph (the “smallest one”) is both 1 and 1000; therefore, the process of growing from 1 to 1000 involves 999 intermediate steps. These are the 999 “Footsteps of the Messiah”, and involve those difficult “birth pangs” at the End of Days. The prophet Jeremiah (30:7) described the birth pangs of the End of Days thus: “Oh that day will be great, none like it. And it will be a time of trouble for Jacob, but he shall be saved from it.” The Vilna Gaon pointed out that the gematria of the words “And it will be a time of trouble for Jacob” (וְעֵֽת־צָרָ֥ה הִיא֙ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב) is 999 as well, further solidifying the connection.

These 999 steps will not be easy for the House of Jacob to overcome. In fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) records that because the birth pangs of the pre-messianic era will be so difficult, “Ulla said, ‘Let him come, but let me not see him.’ And so said Rabbah, ‘Let him come, but let me not see him.’”  Many of our Sages did not want to live through the horrible travails that Jews would endure in the End of Days. (Still, Rav Yosef countered them and said: “Let him come, and let me merit to sit in the shadow of his donkey’s excrement!”)

What we are seeing in the world around us today is part of that difficult process. Israel, the one state of the Jewish people, a tiny sliver of land among 22 Arab countries, is attacked indiscriminately by genocidal terrorists that proudly target innocent civilians. “Rioters” from within the country, chanting for Jews to be driven into the sea, burn down synagogues and ram their cars into pedestrians. Yet the whole world responds by condemning Israel! The world wants to boycott and dismantle the one free democracy amidst a sea of tyranny and despotic regimes. And it’s not just Israel that’s under fire, but Jews all over the world—the entire House of Jacob—are under attack. We keep hearing that “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism”, but no distinction at all is made on the streets of New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Toronto, Montreal, and other cities where Jews have been harassed in recent days.

Throughout this immensely difficult time for our people, it is important to remember that all of this was foreseen and forewarned. To paraphrase Rabbi Akiva, just as we are witnessing the negative parts of the prophecies fulfilled, we should take comfort in knowing that the positive parts of those same prophecies will surely be fulfilled, too. Things may seem to be getting worse and worse by the minute, but God told us that when the time for Redemption comes, “I will hasten it.”

We will soon see everlasting peace, as Isaiah (9:6) said: “To increase [לםרבה] authority and peace without end upon David’s throne and kingdom.” This verse is the only place in the Tanakh where a mem sofit strangely appears in the middle of a word, once more reminding us about the “Alphabet of Redemption”. The five Gevurot are channels of Judgement, and at the same time they are the channels for our salvation. We started off by citing the Talmud which told us that it was the later Prophets who revealed the five special letters. Now we understand why: to teach ancient Israel about the Redemption when all hope seemed to be lost.

Today we also find ourselves at a time of fading hope. We shouldn’t forget that we need to go through this difficult period, and as frightening as it may seem, we must remember that God asked us to wait for Him just a little longer:

…Wait for Me, says God, for the day when I arise as an accuser; When I decide to gather nations, to bring kingdoms together, to pour out My indignation on them, all My blazing anger. Indeed, by the fire of My passion all the Earth shall be consumed. For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, to call out in the Name of God, and serve Him in unity. (Tzefaniah 3:8-9)

It is most appropriate to conclude with these words, for the first verse here is the one singular verse in the entire Tanakh that contains all 27 holy letters within it, and its recitation therefore contains a special light for hastening the impending Redemption, may we merit to see it speedily:

לָכֵ֤ן חַכּוּ־לִי֙ נְאֻם־יְהֹוָ֔ה לְי֖וֹם קוּמִ֣י לְעַ֑ד כִּ֣י מִשְׁפָּטִי֩ לֶאֱסֹ֨ף גּוֹיִ֜ם לְקׇבְצִ֣י מַמְלָכ֗וֹת לִשְׁפֹּ֨ךְ עֲלֵיהֶ֤ם זַעְמִי֙ כֹּ֚ל חֲר֣וֹן אַפִּ֔י כִּ֚י בְּאֵ֣שׁ קִנְאָתִ֔י תֵּאָכֵ֖ל כׇּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃