The positive mitzvot of the Torah are associated with the Hebrew letters vav and hei, the latter two letters of G‑d's four-letter name. The Torah's negative mitzvot are associated with the letters yud and hei, the first two letters of G‑d's name, representing a higher spiritual level.

This is because the positive mitzvot - mitzvot which can be physically performed [like putting on tefillin or giving charity] - are able to "contain" within them an aspect of G‑d's holiness, and draw it down to earth. Negative mitzvot, observed by simply refraining from performing prohibited acts [like "Do not murder"], stem from a level of G‑dliness so lofty that it cannot be contained, in the manner in which the holiness of positive mitzvot is.. The linking of the negative mitzvot with the first letters of G‑d's name and the positive mitzvot with the last reflects this.

The same applies to the Written and Oral portions of the Torah. The Written Torah is G‑d's own wisdom miraculously contained within words, but the Oral Torah, which was handed down in unwritten form throughout the generations, stems from a spiritual level so sublime that it cannot be expressed in words.


Regarding the verse "This is My name forever and this is my memorial to all generations" (Ex. 3:15), in which G‑d instructs Moses to inform the Jews in His name that they are about to be redeemed from Egypt, the Kabbalistic text Tikunei Zohar makes an interesting point. The Hebrew word for "My name" ["sh'mi"], together with the Hebrew letters yud and hei [the initial letters of the name Havayah], has the numerical value of 365 - the number of negative injunctions in the Torah. On the other hand, the Hebrew word for "My memorial" ["zichri"] combines with vav and hei [the latter two letters of G‑d's name] equals 248 - the number of positive mitzvot. The Torah has both written and oral components…

This requires explanation. Intuitively, we tend to think of the positive precepts - mitzvot which are affirmatively performed, as somehow more important, on a higher spiritual level, as it were, than the negative mitzvot, which are observed by refraining from action. Indeed, there is even a general rule of Jewish practice that in applicable circumstances, "a positive mitzvah takes precedence over a negative mitzvah." Nevertheless, since Torah tradition teaches that the first two letters of the Divine Name represent a higher spiritual level than the latter two, Tikunei Zohar's linking the negative injunctions to the first two letters and the positive precepts to the last actually implies that it is the negative mitzvot which are more sublime.

The explanation of this is related to the fact that the Torah has both written and oral components. The expression "the Written Torah" refers to all of Scripture: the 24 books of the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographa. "The Oral Torah" refers to the entire corpus of Jewish knowledge: the explanations and commentaries on the written verses without which the Written Torah cannot be correctly understood. An understanding of the different spiritual levels associated with the Torah will clarify why the former was put into writing by G‑d, while the latter was intended to be transmitted orally from generation to generation. G‑d…is utterly transcendent, unknowable and beyond the grasp of any being…

The Torah may be thought of as the "bridge" between G‑d and humanity. Through its study and practice, we draw ourselves closer to G‑d; more fundamentally, it is the vehicle through which G‑d Himself relates to mankind at all. G‑d's very "self", so to speak, is utterly transcendent, unknowable and beyond the grasp of any being; mankind is simply … mankind, with all its failings and flaws. Although seemingly separated by an unbridgeable gap, G‑d, out of His great love for us, allows us Jews to bridge this gap and connect with His very self anyway. This is accomplished through study of Torah and performance of its mitzvot.

Each time someone does a mitzvah, he or she causes an element of spirituality to become associated with his or her soul - a particular aspect of G‑dliness that he or she draws upon him- or herself, and, through him or her, upon the world in general. Each individual mitzvah carries with it a particular aspect of G‑dliness; the spiritual qualities of one are not identical with those of another. That is, G‑d deliberately formulated each mitzvah so as to bring out a certain spiritual idea, much as a master storyteller might compose one parable to express one concept and a second to symbolize a different idea. And, just as each story or play is the brainchild of the same author, yet some are born of deep personal feelings in the author him- or herself - who really "put his or her heart into them" - so are some of the mitzvot "closer to G‑d's heart" [allegorically speaking] than others, and represent loftier spiritual levels.

With this in mind, we may appreciate a mystical interpretation of the verse "Where is the scribe?" (Isaiah 33:18) The Hebrew word for "where", "ayei", is made up of three letters: alef, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and the letters yud and hei, which, as mentioned above, are the initial two letters of the name Havayah. This is significant in light of the fact that the word "where" can also be read as a noun in the verse in question: "'Where' is the scribe" would then mean the same as "the scribe is [called] 'where'".

This in turn requires us to understand what is meant by the "scribe", which the verse is identifying with the spiritual concept termed "where", spelled by the letters alef, yud, and hei.

It is written in Sefer Yetzira [one of the most ancient of mystical texts, attributed to our forefather Abraham], that G‑d created the universe by means of three things: "with a scribe, with a book, and with a story". Each of these terms alludes to a particular spiritual idea. The "book", of course, is the Torah, holiest of all books; the term "scribe" refers to the source of that book. As mentioned above, the Torah is the means by which G‑d, the Infinite, relates to us Jews: each time a person performs a mitzvah, he or she literally unites with G‑d in a manner determined by the particular mitzvah. Now, if a human king were to desire to communicate with his subjects in this fashion [i.e. by giving them a set of autobiographical parables to study and act out, knowing that by devoting themselves to every individual parable in his royal book, they would be able to form a composite conception the king himself], he would first have to devote a great deal of thought to composing the book and the parables; this is an effort the king would not make were he not motivated by a strong desire to enable his subjects to relate to him. We can allegorically use the same terms to describe G‑d's giving us the Torah. The Hebrew letter yud is often found in Jewish mysticism as a symbol for G‑d's wisdom…

The mitzvot are like the parables that reflect various aspects of G‑d. The Torah itself stems from the "wisdom" of G‑d, in the sense that, since wisdom is the most refined human faculty, we use the term to refer to that most sublime spiritual level at which the Torah originates. This parallels the king in our example applying his mind, his wisdom, to composing the parables.

Finally, just as the human king was motivated to apply his mind by an even deeper level of his personality - his will, his desire that his subjects be able to "reach" or relate to him, stems from a basic level of the personality, defying rational justification and transcending mere "wisdom". We may also speak of a level of G‑d's "personality" [to use expressions familiar to us] that transcends even G‑d's "wisdom": that is, the will of G‑d to communicate the Torah to the Jews. It is this exalted level of G‑d's will that is meant by the term "scribe", since it is the ultimate source of and motivation for the "book", the Torah.

And this spiritual quality is also known as "where", as in the verse "'where' is the scribe". This concept is expressed by the spelling of the word "ayei", "where". The Hebrew letter yud is often found in Jewish mysticism as a symbol for G‑d's wisdom, since the written form of this letter is a single point placed at the top of the line of writing; this represents the fact that ideas first spring into the mind as single, unformed points that have yet to be developed and expanded. The letter hei, square-shaped and thus possessing both depth and breadth, symbolizes that development and expansion of the yud: the fleshing out and understanding of the unformed germ of an idea. Together, these two letters symbolize G‑d's formulation of His own "wisdom" into the Torah, as discussed above. However, the letter alef, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, comes before the letters yud and hei in the word for "where" - which are also the initial letters of the name Havayah - to symbolize that very first level of motivation, the will that precedes intellect - the "scribe" that writes the "book".

Now, the end result of all this - of G‑d first desiring to give us the Torah as a means of understanding Him, then putting His wisdom into the formulation of it, and finally, actually giving us the Torah and mitzvot - is that we now have the means to literally unite with G‑d. This is symbolized by the letter vav, used in the latter half of the name of G‑d, since this letter's written form is that of a vertical line, whose upper portion resembles a yud, extending from top to bottom. The isolated point of the yud at the top of the line may represent abstract conceptions at the highest level of intellect, but the extension of that point into a vertical line - the letter vav of the name Havayah - symbolizes bringing that rarified level "down to earth". The mitzvot are the actual conduits or vessels for the transmission of holiness into this world…

The reason that the positive mitzvot of the Torah are linked to the last two letters - vav and hei - of G‑d's name is that the mitzvot are the actual conduits or vessels for the transmission of holiness into this world; they bring G‑dliness down to earth. When a Jew actively performs one of the positive precepts, he or she is in effect illuminating the world with a bit more holiness, the holiness "contained" within that particular mitzvah.

The negative injunctions in the Torah, by contrast, are associated with the first two letters of the name Havayah, which precede the transmission down to our level symbolized by the letter vav. While positive precepts, things that can actually be performed, represent G‑dliness "contained", as it were, within that particular action, the negative mitzvot represent a level of spirituality so high that it cannot be contained within any vessel, cannot be expressed by any act.

All we can do to help express this sublime level of G‑dliness is to refrain from actions that would impede a particular aspect of G‑dliness from being revealed. Do not eat non-kosher food, for to do so would impede a certain aspect of G‑dliness; do not murder, for to do so would impede a different aspect of G‑dliness. That is why the negative mitzvot, which are observed not by doing something but by refraining from doing something, are associated with the first two letters of G‑d's name, representing a higher spiritual level - just like the yud, an inaccessible point, the negative mitzvot represent a level of spirituality too high to be "contained".

This idea is generally related to the concept of the Written and Oral Torah. For the Torah is the very wisdom and will of G‑d Himself, and only He could miraculously "condense" it into written form. The Written Torah, which is spirituality put into words and letters, is thus associated with the letters vav and hei of G‑d's name, since, as explained above, this symbolizes bringing G‑d's wisdom down to earth. [This is appropriate, since in general, the Written Torah speaks about fulfilling positive precepts, also associated, for the same reason, with vav and hei.] On the other hand, the Oral Torah stems from a spiritual level so sublime as to defy written expression, and is therefore considered superior in this respect to the Written Torah, as expressed by the Midrashic comment to Song of Songs 1:2, "The words of the Scribes [a reference to the Oral Torah and its association with the spiritual level of "scribe"] are sweeter to Me [G‑d] than the wine of Torah."

[Copyright 2001 Yitzchok D. Wagshul /]

Translator's disclaimer: The Hebrew original contains much more than could possibly be presented here. Thus, for those with the ability to learn in Hebrew, this synopsis should not be considered a substitute for the original discourse.