Hebrew’s smallest and most used letter
Admiring the cover of a new Hebrew textbook I purchased recently got me thinking of possibilities for the front of the HebrewEasy workbook. What Hebrew letter might I use? The textbook kept the cover simple, with a huge Aleph in the book’s center with the title written across it. Very nice.
Because I enjoy simple graphic art, I began browsing google images for Hebrew letters. Thinking a letter with a tail might work, I ended up with a yod! Somehow my browsing got away from image search, and I came across a post that talked about what Jesus was saying when he mentioned the “jot” and the “tittle” in a passage found in Matthew 5:18. I felt this Christian article to be an excellent resource to share here. I found another article written with a different slant from a Christian resource better known to me. I was all set to share a bit of both and found an article that predates both Christian pieces by a Jewish author.
All three authors think (and I agree) the phrase refers to the Hebrew letter yod and helps us see clearly Jesus was speaking in his native language of Hebrew. Let’s begin by looking at the “jot & tittle” verse in Matthew 5:18 from the King James translation:
“For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
The yod is the tenth letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet, the smallest and most used of all the letters! Even before Jesus’ day, there was a saying familiar to the Jewish people: קוֹצוֹ שֶׁל יוֹד (kotzo shel yod). Literally translated as the smallest edge-or the thorn – of the letter yod. This expression refers to something tiny, insignificant, or inconsequential.
After reading all three articles, I opened by Hebrew/English Bible to see what I might find in verse 18. My take is a bit different from all three! I read the verse in the context it is written – Jesus speaking to a multitude, giving them solid instruction on living as people of God. When we get to verse 17, He says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” Then He says, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
The Hebrew version doesn’t say “law”. It says Torah. What Jesus said was, “Don’t think I came to abolish the writings of Moses and the prophets.” Most Christians don’t understand that about 150 years before Jesus arrived, a sect (called today rabbinical Judaism) was forming. This sect observed two Torahs, the original written Torah of Moses and their oral Torah. The Old Testament never mentions the Oral Torah. Until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Israelites were known as Judeans following the Torah and Prophets. After the scattering of Israel, Rabbinic Judaism gained control, and Judeans became known as Jewish. The Jewish religion changed from what most Christians’ concept of “Torah” observant” (following the Old Testament God gave) to following two Torahs.
Understanding a bit more about the verse, include the word Torah instead of law with yod and tittle, and consider: Is Jesus using a familiar phrase to get an important point across to the people and to give a direct warning to those trying to infiltrate their faith with false teachings? Could He be saying, “Don’t stray away from the God of your fathers?” I think it’s food for thought! A link to all of Matthew 5 is in the footnotes below.
The Christian authors didn’t make a point like the Jewish writer did back in 2003. Links for all three are in the footnotes, but I think this article comes from a true Jewish perspective. Here it is:
A Thorn in One’s Side
May 23, 2003
The Israeli government, so Defense Minister Shaul Mufaz was recently quoted by newspapers as saying, intends to hold the new Palestinian Authority leadership accountable for fighting terror al kotso shel yod, “to the tip of a yod.” This is a fine old Hebrew expression with an interesting history.
If you look carefully at the printed letter yod, i, you will see that it has, in its upper left-hand corner, a tiny tip pointing upward. Several other letters in the Hebrew alphabet have the same feature, such as bet, a, and resh, x. This tip is known in Hebrew as a kots, or thorn, and is simply part of the letter’s design.
Because yod is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, the “thorn” on it became synonymous with the minute details of something. In the talmudic tractate of Menahot, for example, there is a discussion of the parchment verses in a mezuza in which the rabbis rule that the slightest mistake in any of them invalidates the entire mezuza. To which Rabbi Yehudah adds: “This refers even to the thorn of a yod.”
Not many people know — in fact, I’ll bet not even many etymologists know — that the English word “iota” in the sense of a very small amount, as in the sentence, “I want you to do what I tell you to the last iota,” goes back to the Hebrew expression “the thorn of a yod.” Originally, an iota was simply the Greek letter, whose name was pronounced “yota” and comes from the Hebrew or Phoenician yod or yoda. (The little mark over the iota, however, is not related to either the thorn of the yod or to the dot over the English “i.” It is the Greek smooth breathing sign and indicates that the vowel is not preceded by an “h.”) The secondary sense of “iota” as a tiny item or detail comes from the Greek New Testament, in which Jesus is quoted by the gospel according to Matthew as saying, “For verily I say unto you, not one jot nor one tittle shall in no wise pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled” (a very Orthodox Jewish position, it must be said.).
This is the King James Version, and it is a rather free translation. In the Greek, Jesus is represented as saying, iotahen ei mia keraia ou mei parelthe apo tou nomou, literally, “Not one iota or ‘horn’ shall pass from the Law.” Yet Jesus did not speak Greek, so what was it that he really said? To answer this, we have to keep two things in mind. The first is that an iota followed by another vowel, such as an alpha or an epsilon, was how the Greeks represented the yod in their transliterations of Hebrew. The second is that a “horn,” keraia, was a Greek scribal term for a mark over a letter, like the rough and smooth breathing signs. It is quite clear, therefore, that when Jesus is said to have referred to “the horn of an iota,” he was actually speaking of the thorn of a yod!
Needless to say, well-educated readers of Hebrew do not associate the expression “the thorn of a yod” with the New Testament. They do associate it with a long narrative poem titled “Kotso Shel Yod” by the 19th-century Hebrew writer Yehuda Leib Gordon. Gordon was a maskil, a champion of religious reform, and his poem is ardently feminist and bitterly anti-rabbinical. It tells the story of a beautiful woman, Basshua, who is deserted in a Russian shtetl by her husband, Hillel, and becomes an aguna, a single mother who cannot remarry because she is not divorced. Forced to support herself and her two children, she ekes out a living from a small grocery store.
One day a kind and wealthy bachelor named Fabi enters Basshua’s store, falls in love with her, as she does with him, and resolves to find Hillel. He tracks him down and arranges to pay him a large sum of money if he will sign a get or writ of divorce. This is done, the get arrives in the shtetl, and Basshua goes happily with it to the local rabbi, expecting to be granted the freedom to marry Fabi. Alas! The name “Hillel” has been spelled without a yod, and the rabbi, a cruel old curmudgeon, refuses to recognize the document as valid. Meanwhile, Hillel has vanished in a shipwreck and cannot send another get. Fabi and Basshua are devastated, and the poem ends with her lamenting:
I could have been a happy woman for good
If I hadn’t been killed by the thorn of a yod.
I chuckled when reading this Jewish take on Jesus’s words. The author’s insight is more authentic in understanding Jewish culture. However, I hope you will visit the links to the other two articles in the footnotes below! I enjoyed both and find both to be excellent resources for Hebrew lovers! The titles should give you a hint: It’s a Yod — NOT a Jot and Tittle!1 and Yod – One Very Significant Letter.2
Todah! Thank you for stopping by the Israel Letters aks Haverim.blog! Please hit like if you enjoy the post and share it with family and friends. God bless you continually!
Blessed be the Holy One of Israel,
1. It’s a Yod — NOT a Jot and Tittle!
2. Yod – One Very Significant Letter
3. A Thorn in One’s Side
© 2023 Nancy Montgomery – Haverim.blog
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