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Ki Tavo

On Language

based on the writings of the chabad rebbes by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]


“and you shall write on the stones all the words of this torah, well explained.”[2]

In this parsha we read how Moses instructed the people to erect large stones that when they would cross the Jordan into their promised landt. On these stones they were to write all of the Torah “well explained.”

Our sages interpret well explained to meantranslated into the seventy languages.”[3]

[The word for “well,” heiteiv, equals 70 by the following method: hey=5, hey, yud=15 hey, yud, tes=24 hey, yud, tes, beis=26—all of which equals 70.[4]]

This essay will explore the differences between the 70 languages and the Holy Tongue (Hebrew), as well as their parallel in the two aspects of Torah.

The Mishnah says that a person who hears the megillah being read in Hebrew, even if he does not understand the meaning of the words, has fulfilled his obligation to hear the megillah. If, however, he hears the megillah being read in a different language, he fulfills his obligation only if he understands what is being read.[5]

What is the difference between the Holy Tongue and the other languages? 

Now in Sefer Yetzirah letters are referred to as stones, as in the phrase, “Two stones build two houses.”[6]

[Just as houses are built of stones, so too words, which house ideas, are built of letters. Two letters build two homes, since two letters can create two words.]

Stones are silent (inanimate). They are of the lowest of the four elements, human, animal, vegetable, and mineral. Similarly, letters are very much inferior to the intellect and emotions (which experience life and growth, and are therefore compared to vegetable and animal).

About this King David, may he rest in peace, said: “The stone scorned by the builders has become the cornerstone.”[7] For although letters are called stones and are inferior to intellect and emotions, nevertheless, they have the ability to elevate the intellect and emotions.

Hence, halachically, one must actually say the words of prayer and Torah; thinking them alone “is nothing.” For just as stones form a house, so too the letters of Torah house the revelation of G-d’s infinite light.

(Letters are also called horses.[8] For just as a horse can take its rider to a place he is unable to reach on his own, so too the letters of the Torah elevate the soul to a place that it cannot reach on its own.)

Now among stones there are two types. One type is created originally by G-d in the form of stones. Then there are “stones” that are formed by man, which are called “bricks.” As is common knowledge (yadua umifursom) these too can be used as “stones” in the construction of homes.

These two types of stones correspond to the two types of languages. There is a language whose letters and words contain and express the energy of the objects and ideas they house. This is a G-d-made language, namely the Holy Tongue.[9] Its letters are compared to stones, which are G-d-made.

The other languages are man-made and compared to bricks. The words and letters of these languages bear no connection to the objects and ideas they express. It is only that various societies have agreed to call certain things by certain names. Such languages, too, have the capacity to contain ideas and “build a home.” For example, the letters of the word m’yasa [Russian for meat] bear no inherent connection to meat; but they express the idea to one who understands the language.

However, the major distinction between them is that the mere utterance of the words of the Holy Tongue, even when one does not understand their meaning, creates the vessels for the energies that they express. Thus the reading of the megillah in the Holy Tongue evokes the energies associated with the story of Purim even when one does not understand their meaning. But if it is read in another language that is not understood to the listener,  nothing has happened. It is only if the person understands the language being read that the letters serve as a vessel for the concepts being expressed. [Hebrew letters serve as vessels regardless of whether they are understood; other letters serve as vessels only when they act as a vehicle for comprehension.]

In a similar vein, within the Holy Tongue itself there is a difference between the Written Torah (Scripture), and the Oral Torah (Mishnah, Talmud, etc.).

In the written Torah, the primary thing is the letters. Therefore, the exact spelling of the words [certain words can be spelled in different ways, what is known as chosser and yatir] is critcal. Similarly, the form of the letters as they are penned on the parchment is critical. Each letter must be complete. If there is a crack in one of the letters, the scroll is invalid and no blessing can be recited over it. However, most of Torah law is not revealed in the Written Torah, most of which is narrative. Even the laws of the Written Torah are written in narrative form as well: so said G-d to tell the Children of Israel and so said Moses. It is not its purpose to serve as the sole source of Torah law in all its detail.

Take, for example, the law of Tefillin. No where in the Written Torah is it explained that the Tefillin include four scrolls and that it must be written in a specific way, on parchment, etc. So it is with all other mitzvos.

[In fact, nowhere in the Torah does the word tefillin appear. The Torah “and they shall be for you as totafos between your eyes.” What are totafos? The Talmud[10] explains it as follows: “Tot in the language of the Caspi region means “two,” and fos in the language of the Afriki region means “two.”[11]]

This is because the Written Torah stems from supernal Chochmah, while the Oral Torah stems from lower Chochmah. In other words, the Written Torah is like the hints that a teacher provides for his student so that the student can understand on his own how to study. But the hints themselves are not the primary study. Similarly, the letters of the Written Torah are only hints and expressions of the supernal Chochmah. Hence the importance and exactness of each letter. All of its letters are counted and measured; there cannot be one more or one less. And each letter must be written properly, since it must serve as a symbol for an expression of the supernal Chochmah.

The elucidation of Torah, however, is not revealed in the Written Torah. This is revealed in the Oral Torah, where the main thing is not the letters per se, but the concepts being taught. Therefore, there is no great emphasis on the letters themselves, but rather on the concepts they express. So all of the elaboration of the Oral Torah, such as the commentaries on the Talmud of Rashi and Tosafos and the later Codifiers, is included in the Oral Torah.

(The Oral Torah is called the Land of Israel, which is compared to the skin of a deer.[12]

[Israel, who is called man, refers to the “image of a Man upon the throne.”[13] and alludes to the Written Torah. The land of Israel,  is like the footstool, as in the verse, “the land is My footstool,”[14] and corresponds to the Oral Torah, where the wisdom of the Written Torah is expressed on the earthly plane. It is called a land flowing with milk and honey, referring to the secretes of Torah included in the Oral Torah, which are sweet to the tongue.[15]]

For just as the skin of a deer expands according to its flesh, so too the letters of the Oral Torah expand according to the elucidation of the concepts. The letters of the Written Torah remain static, they do not expand.)

[Because of all of the above, the law is that reading the words of the Written Torah is considered studying Torah and requires the blessing that must be recited before studying Torah.[16] However, if a person reads of the Oral Torah and knows not what he reads, he is not studying Torah.]

The Written Torah is therefore called mikra, and studying it is referred to as korei batorah. The word korei is translated as read, but actually means “to call.” For in the study of the Written Torah one calls forth the energies of the letters, G-d’s infinite light upon one’s soul. The study of the Oral Torah is more about understanding and grasping the wisdom of G-d with one’s own intellect.[17] &


[1] Ohr Hatorah, Devarim, vol. 6, p. 2,394; Torah Ohr 57d and 77c.
[2] Deuteronomy 26:8.
[3] Sotah 32a.
[4] Sifsei Chachomim on Deuteronomy 1:5.
[5] Megillah 17a.
[6] 4:16.
[7] Psalms 118:22.
[8] See Chabakuk 3:8.
[9] See Tanya 2:1; Shelah, Bayis Neeman 11:1; Pardes, shaar haosiyos 1. 
[10] Sanhedrin 4b.
[11] The Tzemach Tzedek cites Shelah: “Do not imagine that the Torah uses languages that are not the Holy Tongue. Rather—when G-d created the world, there was only the Holy Tongue as Rashi states in numerous instances. [Later, other languages developed.] When G-d confused the languages during the Generation of the Tower of Babel, He mixed in words of Hebrew into the other languages. So the words [tos and fos] are words of the Holy Tongue that were mixed into the other languages: Greek, Caspian, and African.” (The Tzemach Tzedek asks: if so there seem to be more words for the number two than necessary?)—Ohr Hatorah, Vaeschenan, p. 327.
[12] See Kesubos 111a.
[13] Ezekiel 1:26.
[14] Isaiah 66:1.
[15] See Likutei Torah, Savo 41c.
[16] Siddur Tehillas Hashem pp. 9-10.
[17]  (Thus through the study  of the Oral Torah, the goal of dirah bitachtonim, permeating the world and human consciousness with Divinity, is better served.


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