Essays by Stan Tenen

Jewish-Interest Essays by Stan Tenen: Eating Our Words
Purim, 2002
©2002, 2004 Stan Tenen 

It's an old joke:

Jewish History 101:

1. They attacked us.
2. God saved us.
3. Let's eat!

Like many old jokes and aphorisms, this "summary of Jewish history" also carries a serious message.

Cognitive scientists report that cognition is based on body movement. First we move, and then our mind observes and thinks about (how and when we move), and consequently grows the appropriate neural connections.  Then, and only then, can we memorialize our movements in thought and begin to consider why we choose to move.  Our constellation of movements proceeds, leads to, and empowers our repertoire of thoughts and memories.  These are the "stuff" from which our volitional minds and our "free will" spring.

What we can choose to do, and consequently what we are able to do, derives from what we can think.  

The first thing we do in life is to come into this world.  In this way, the nascent "we" (really hardly more than our bodies' movements) learn "in" and "out."  We repeat this by eating -- taking food from outside, inside.   This is the source of our cognition.  Whenever we eat, we think -- and we lay down the neural traces of new memories, experiences, and examples of what and how we eat.  Ultimately we learn to be able to think about how we obtain our food, how we prepare our food, how we share our food, and the constellation of activities and abilities that spreads outward from eating, and all other examples of movement between inside and outside.  

Later, biblically in the story of the Garden of Eden, we learn to distinguish the subjective world in our minds (cognition) and the objective world outside (action).  Thus we gain knowledge, free will, and responsibility.  As we mature we learn that our integrity is in the balance between our inner thoughts and our outer actions.  
("Integrity" = Toku k'varo -- "His insides are like his outsides.")

In a similar vein, mathematicians can demonstrate that all of formal logic (the essence of mathematical reasoning) can be derived from the distinction between inside and outside.  "Formal logic" in mathematics is the technical equivalent of cognition, which is why it is essential in Artificial Intelligence and computer theory.

In colloquial language, distinguishing inside from outside is the function of a "house."  This may be one reason why the first letter of B’reshit is Bet -- meaning "house."  In active terms (as the movement we learn from), a house represents the function of "housing."

At Mt. Sinai we "do before we understand."  Active experience is necessary before we can understand, and before we are capable of making volitional choices of our own "free will."  We literally cannot agree to anything nor can we make meaningful promises until after we have the cognitive tools to do so.

Since Hebrew roots carry intrinsic meaning based on the shorter roots and individual letters they are composed from, we can examine the Hebrew word for "eat" and expect to find additional details, depth, and shades of meaning.  "Eat," in Hebrew, is spelled Alef-Kaf-Lamed.  The active form of the name of each letter gives us its basic formal meaning.  Thus,

Alef means "master" / "mastery," "in general"  and "as an archetype."  
(English cognates for ALeF include: ALooF/ALoFt; ALL/ALL-OF)

Kaf designates the "Palm of the hand."  It means "to hold" as in "cupping" (what the palm does), "like" (nested like in the palm), and all the varieties of "holding" such as hold-up/hold-down, hold-in/hold-out, hold-on/hold-off, hold-by, hold-to, hold-for, etc.  As a suffix, Final-Kaf designates "possession of", another form of "holding."
(English cognates for KaPh include: HooF; CuP/CaP/CaPe; CooP/KeeP; CoPe)

Lamed means to "learn/study/teach," and to move "to" or "towards".
(English cognates for Lamed might include the slang word, gLoM, as in "to glom onto something." and LooM as in "to come into sight.")

There are two 2-letter roots in our dictionary: Alef-Kaf and Kaf-Lamed.

Alef-(final)Kaf means "surely" or "only."

Kaf-Lamed means "all" and "comprehend."

Letter-by-letter, simply and literally: Alef-Kaf-Lamed indicates a "Mastery (Alef) Holding (Kaf) Learning (Lamed)", or a "General Holding-to (of) Learning", or the "Archetype (for) Gathering Comprehension."

Alternatively we could make use of the two 2-letter roots:

Alef-Kaf = surely/only, and Lamed = learning.  
Therefore Alef-Kaf-Lamed must mean "surely learning / learning surely", or "only learning / learning only."

Alef = All (or mastery), and Kaf-Lamed = comprehend.  
Therefore Alef-Kaf-Lamed must mean "all comprehension", or "mastery of comprehension."

There are many examples of how what we eat is also what we learn -- or a deep representation and memorialization of what we learn.

Here are some examples of foods and our preparation of foods that memorialize some of the deepest mysteries of Jewish learning:

Braided Challah
Wine and Kiddush Cup
The Seder Plate
Dough-nuts (Sofganit)
Shmittah year
Incense and Spices

...and, the food we will use for an example here, Hamantaschen.

What can we learn from hamantaschen?  First, of course, we need to presume that there is some particular reason, now lost to us, why our sages and teachers taught (or merely allowed us to adapt or adopt, or possibly encouraged) us to make 3-cornered, sweet-filled pastries from a small flat circular piece of dough.  What, if anything, is being memorialized by this quaint triangular tart?

My examination of the use of geometric metaphor in B’reshit has led me to consider a range of basic natural geometric forms, and the ways in which they might have been described and knowledge of them preserved in traditional teachings -- before there was any generally understood mathematical language to do the job.  Of course, the geometric forms are only ancillary.  They offer a natural, timeless, universal way of preserving a wide range of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual teachings -- and it is these teachings, and not the geometry per se, that are important.  In other words, the geometry is necessary, but the teachings and traditions preserved by the use of geometric metaphor are what is really important.


During my investigation of the letter sequences at the beginning of the text of B’reshit, I eventually found a woven pattern.  That such a pattern should exist is clear because we are taught that the initial letters and words of B’reshit are of special, archetypal, importance.  The first word of B’reshit is often translated "In the beginning," based on the fact that one root meaning of the sequence of letters Resh-Alef-Shin-Yod-Tov is "head," "head-waters," and "first."  But there is also an alternate root to consider, Resh-Shin-Tov, which lends significant meaning.  ReSheT designates a woven "net" or "network", and it tells us to examine the text in this light.  When we do this, we find important geometry based on the special nature of the Hebrew alphabet.

 There are traditional teachings that suggest that the letters of the alphabet can be usefully arranged on the circumference of a circle.  Most illustrations and interpretations of these teachings mistakenly make use of the short 22-letter alphabet without the 5-final letters, or they mistakenly include Alef, Bet, and final-Zadi on the circumference of the circle with the other 24-letters.  Study of the first verse of B’reshit leads to the conclusion that the initial Bet (the first letter of B’reshit) is written larger than the other letters for good reason(s).  Among these reasons is that this Bet is intended to be paired with the final-Zadi at the end of the last word of the verse to form a large, seventh, "Shabbos" Alef, as a “companion” for the other six ordinary Alefs in the verse.  (This is important geometrically and kabbalistically -- and it presages the 6-days-of-creation-plus-Shabbos that will be introduced next in B’reshit.)

In order to make sense of the letter sequences at the beginning of B’reshit, it is necessary to make use of a natural "circular" structure inherent in the Hebrew alphabet.  The letters show this circular structure when we write them in alphabetical order with the final letters at the end, all on the circumference of a circle except for the final-Zadi.  We then pair the final-Zadi and the Bet together to form a large Alef at the center of the circle. (This circular quality is one reason why both the first verse of B’reshit and the Hebrew alphabet are sometimes metaphorically compared to an "oroboros" - a "snake that eats its tail.")




Circular tortilla folded in to form
a 3-cornered hat
 -- Hamentaschen --
pastry with a dark-jam - MUD - filling.


Then, we take this flat circle-of-letters and fold it EXACTLY as if it were a small round piece of dough we intended to fill with jam and fold into a hamantaschen.  The "3-cornered hat" triangular-shape of the hamantaschen pulls the letters into 3-groups, one along each of the curved edges at the top of the "hat."   When we then look directly down on the sweet filling in the middle (as if to remember the sweetness of the holiday or Shabbos day and its Source) we see concentric circles of letters -- and it is these circles of letters that enable us to "reweave" the letters at the beginning of B’reshit.  This reweaving displays the 3-dimensional geometric patterns in B’reshit and, ultimately, it shows us how to draw and understand all of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  (The hamantaschen-alphabet from B’reshit also enables us to understand key sections of Sefer Yetsirah, the kabbalistic "Book of Formation," and even the mysterious word (or words?) b'li-mah.)

The 4-colored bands make the same 4-letter sets as on the TREFOIL pattern and as on the Rubik Cube.  These are the letter-sets used to pair off the letters at the beginning of the Hebrew text of Genesis.


The lowly, yet lovely and tasty hamantaschen helps to preserve our knowledge of how to unravel and "re-weave" the sequence of letters in the text of B’reshit, just as the kabbalists have always claimed was possible.  The same "hamantaschen-geometry" is also preserved in an ancient drawing of the world which shows Jerusalem at the center of a 3-leaved clover-leaf pattern. (One leaf represents Europe, the second Asia, and the third Africa.)

Now we know why we put jam or other sweet filling inside, at the center of the hamantaschen.  The center of the hamantaschen represents the seventh, Shabbos Alef of B’reshit, and the kabbalist's idealized "Heavenly Jerusalem" the ultimate "sweet" place.  The center Alef, composed of Bet-finalZadi"Botz"MUD – is where we put the dark jam filling.

Examples of the Jerusalem map are rare, but the hamantaschen we eat appears and re-appears to delight us, year after year, child and adult alike.  Whether we know it or not, when we "do" (make and bake) and "eat" hamantaschen we lay down the neural traces that later will lead us home to Jerusalem.

And, finally, if "eating our words" helps to make us wise, it should not be a surprise that squandering our words leaves us less wise.


Let's eat.

Happy Purim,




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