Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his commentary to Tehillim (72:11) that Hebrew shows the essence of each item. For instance, "כסא" defines and reveals the essence of something designed to sit on, while the word "chair" is arbitrarily created. Are there early sources in the Rishonim which discuss this fundamental concept?

(There is a slight allusion to this idea in Rashi Bereishis (2:19) regarding Adam naming all the animals, but I'm looking for Rishonim who discuss the power of lashon hakodesh to define the essence of an item.)

  • Does a human qualify as an item? As there are numerous sources that say the name of person defines their essence
    – Dov
    Aug 16, 2020 at 9:15

2 Answers 2


The Kuzari's position seems to fit the description. He says that the word of God defines that things essence, and includes the power to create that thing. Then he identifies the language of God with the language that God taught Adam, so that when Adam named all of the animals, "that was its name" (Genesis 2:19), implying that the name fits the object's essence.

Kuzari 4:25 (translated by Ibn Tibbon and Hartwig Hirschfeld):

וְיִהְיֶה שִׁעוּר הָאָדָם וְדִבּוּרוֹ וּמִכְתָּבוֹ, אוֹתוֹת מוֹרִים עַל הַדָּבָר, לֹא גוּף הַדָּבָר, אֲבָל שִׁעוּר הָאֱלֹהִים וּדְבָרוֹ הוּא הַדָּבָר בְּעַצְמוֹ וְהוּא מִכְתָּבוֹ, כַּאֲשֶׁר אִם הָיִיתָ מַעֲלֶה עַל דַּעְתְּךָ אוֹרֵג בִּגְדֵי פַסִּים מְחַשֵּׁב בִּמְלַאכְתוֹ וְהַמֶּשִׁי נַעֲשֶׂה לִרְצוֹנוֹ, וּמִתְגַּוֵּן בִּגְוָנִים הָעוֹלִים עַל לִבּוֹ, וּמִתְרַכֵּב הַהַרְכָּבוֹת אֲשֶׁר הוּא חָפֵץ – יִהְיֶה הַבֶגֶד הַהוּא בְּשִׁעוּרוֹ מִכְתָּבוֹ. וְאִלּוּ הָיִינוּ יְכוֹלִים כְּשֶׁנְּדַבֵּר בְּמִלַּת 'אָדָם' אוֹ כְּשֶׁנַּחֲקֹק גוּףּ הָאָדָם, לְהַמְצִיא צוּרָתוֹ, הָיִינוּ יְכוֹלִים עַל הַדִּבּוּר הָאֱלֹהִי וְהַכְּתָב הָאֱלֹהִי, וְהָיִינוּ בוֹרְאִים 'כַּאֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ יְכוֹלִים קְצָת הַיְכֹלֶת עַל הַצִּיּוּר הַשִּׂכְלִי. אַךְ הַלְּשׁוֹנוֹת וְהַמִּכְתָּבִים, יֵשׁ לִקְצָתָם יִתְרוֹן עַל קְצָתָם. מֵהֶם מַה שֶּׁשְּׁמוֹתָם נְאוֹתִים הַרְבֵּה בַּקְּרוִּאים, וּמֵהֶם רְחוֹקִים מֵהֵאוֹת לָהֶם.‏

וְהַלָּשׁוֹן הָאֱלֹהִית הַבְּרוּאָה אֲשֶׁר לִמְּדָהּ הָאֱלֹהִים לָאָדָם וְשָׂמָה עַל לְשׁוֹנוֹ וּבִלְבָבוֹ, הִיא מִבְּלִי סָפֵק הַשְּׁלֵמָה מִכָּל הַלְּשׁוֹנוֹת וְהַנְּאוֹתָה לִקְרוּאֶיהָ יוֹתֵר מִכֻּלָּם, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר: "וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא־לוֹ הָאָדָם נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה הוּא שׁמוֹ", רְצוֹנוֹ לוֹמַר: שֶׁהוּא רָאוּי לַשֵּׁם הַהוּא וְנֵאוֹת לוֹ וּמְלַמֵּד עַל טִבְעוֹ. וְהִתְחַיֵּב מִזֶּה לָשׂוּם מַעֲלָה וְיִתְרוֹן לִלְשׁוֹן הַקֹּדֶשׁ, וְשֶׁהַמַּלְאָכִים יוֹתֵר חוֹשְׁשִׁים לָהּ וּמַרְגִּישִׁים, מִזּוּלָתָהּ מֵהַלְּשׁוֹנוֹת, וְעַל זֶה נֶאֱמַר בַּ'מִכְתָּב' כִּי צוּרוֹת אוֹתִיּוֹתָיו אֵינָם בְּלֹא כַוָּנָה וּבְמִקְרֶה, אֲבָל לְעִנְיָן נֵאוֹת עִם הַמְכֻוָּן מִכָּל אוֹת וָאוֹת.‏

Man's will, writing, and word are marks of the thing, but not the nature of the same. The will, however, expressed in the word of God signifies the essence of the thing, and is at the same time His script. Imagine a silk weaver considering his work[.] The silk obeys him, accepts the colours and patterns which he has contrived. The garment therefore comes into existence by his will and design. If we were able when speaking of, or drawing a human figure, to produce a human form, then we should have the word of God in our power and could create, just as we are able to do partially in forming objects in the mind. Spoken or written words have certain advantages over each other. In some cases the name fits the object exactly; in others less so.

The language created by God, which He taught Adam and placed on his tongue and in his heart, is without any doubt the most perfect and most fitted to express the things specified, as it is written: 'And whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof' (Genesis 2:19). This means that it deserved such name which fitted and characterized it. This shows the excellence of the 'holy tongue' as well as the reason why the angels employed it in preference to any other. Writing is judged from a similar point of view. The shapes of the letters are not the result of accident, but of a device which is in harmony with the character of each letter.

I was directed to this source by Wikipedia, which also notes that the Rambam (Guide to the Perplexed 2:30) holds the opposite position, that language is conventional, and derives it from the exact same verse.

  • I don't see how this answers the question.
    – Sam
    Aug 18, 2020 at 0:43
  • @Sam I don't see how it doesn't
    – b a
    Aug 18, 2020 at 9:37

Shaar hsyichud veemunah, Tanya book 2, chapter one mainly, references a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov that the Hebrew name for an object gives life to it, and constantly brings it into existence. Some items are constantly created through gematria alone, and others through gematria systems such as at bash, and more references are there from defer yetzira

For reference, chapter 1 there:

וידעת היום והשבות אל לבבך כי ה׳ הוא האלקים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת, אין עוד

It is written:1 “Know this day and take it unto your heart that G‑d is the [mighty and just] L‑rd in the heavens above and upon the earth below; there is none other.”2

The verse, if understood simplistically, seems to declare that there are no other gods dwelling in heaven or earth.

וצריך להבין. וכי תעלה על דעתך שיש אלקים נשרה במים מתחת לארץ

This requires explanation. For would it occur to you that there is a god dwelling in the waters beneath the earth,

שצריך להזהיר כל כך: והשבות אל לבבך

so that it is necessary to caution so strongly [and negate this thought by stating that one should] “take it unto your heart,” and come to the realization that this is indeed not so?

הנה כתיב: לעולם ה׳ דברך נצב בשמים

It is written:3 “Forever, O G‑d, Your word stands firm in the heavens.”

ופירש הבעל שם טוב ז״ל

The Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, has explained this concept at length, and made it widely known4 that this means:

כי דברך שאמרת: יהי רקיע בתוך המים וגו׳

that “Your word” which you uttered, viz.,5 “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters...,”

תיבות ואותיות אלו הן נצבות ועומדות לעולם בתוך רקיע השמים

these very words and letters through which the heavens were created stand firmly forever within the firmament of heaven

ומלובשות בתוך כל הרקיעים לעולם להחיותם

and are forever clothed within all the heavens to give them life,

Note of the Rebbe: “The fact that these words were uttered thousands of years ago presents no problem, — ”

כדכתיב: ודבר אלקינו יקום לעולם

as it is written,6 “And the word of our L‑rd shall stand firm forever,”

ודבריו חיים וקיימים לעד כו׳

and as it is likewise written,7 “And His words live and stand firm forever....”

This refers not only to those creations such as the heavenly firmament which enjoy a permanent existence, but also to those creatures which perish as individuals, with only their species continuing to exist. In all instances, the Divine life-force which created a particular creature must constantly be vested within it, incessantly creating and vivifying it anew, just as it ceaselessly recreates the heavenly firmament, as shall soon be explained.

כי אילו היו האותיות מסתלקות כרגע, חס ושלום, וחוזרות למקורן

For if the creative letters were to depart even for an instant, G‑d forbid, and return to their source, that source being the degree of G‑dliness from whence they emanate,

היו כל השמים אין ואפס ממש, והיו כלא היו כלל

all the heavens would become naught and absolute nothingness, and it would be as though they had never existed at all,

וכמו קודם מאמר: יהי רקיע כו׳ ממש

exactly as before the utterance, “Let there be a firmament.”

Before that Divine utterance the firmament did not exist at all. Were the letters that constitute the Divine utterance to depart from the firmament, it would revert to the state of never having existed at all.

The Alter Rebbe now concludes that this is true not only of the firmament, but of all created beings.

וכן בכל הברואים שבכל העולמות עליונים ותחתונים

And so it is with all created things, in all the upper and lower worlds,

ואפילו ארץ הלזו הגשמית, ובחינת דומם ממש

and even this physical earth and the realm of the completely inanimate.

Even immobile beings that show no signs of animation or spirituality, not even the degree of animation observed in the process of growth in the vegetative world, — even this extremely low life-form constantly harbors within it the Divine life-force that brought it into being.

אילו היו מסתלקות ממנה כרגע, חס ושלום, האותיות מעשרה מאמרות שבהן נבראת הארץ בששת ימי בראשית

If the letters of the Ten Utterances by which the earth was created during the Six Days of Creation were to depart from it but for an instant, G‑d forbid,

היתה חוזרת לאין ואפס ממש, כמו לפני ששת ימי בראשית ממש

it would revert to naught and absolute nothingness, exactly as before the Six Days of Creation.

וזה שאמר האריז״ל, שגם בדומם ממש כמו אבנים ועפר ומים יש בחינת נפש וחיות רוחנית

This thought was expressed by the AriZal,8 when he said that even within that which appears to be utterly inanimate matter, such as stones or earth or water, there is a soul and spiritual life-force.

דהיינו: בחינת התלבשות אותיות הדבור מעשרה מאמרות המחיות ומהוות את הדומם

That is, i.e, although they evince no demonstrable form of animation, [within them] are nevertheless enclothed the letters of speech from the Ten Utterances which give life and existence to inanimate matter,

להיות יש מאין ואפס שלפני ששת ימי בראשית

enabling it to come into being out of the naught and nothingness that preceded the Six Days of Creation.

The Ten Utterances usher inanimate matter into a state of existence, in contrast to its former state of non-being, prior to the Six Days of Creation. Thus, the letters of the Ten Utterances which cause inanimate matter to be created are its soul and life-force.

ואף שלא הוזכר שם אבן בעשרה מאמרות שבתורה

Now, although the name אבן (“stone”) is not mentioned in the Ten Utterances recorded in the Torah, — how, then, can we say that letters of the Ten Utterances are enclothed within a stone?

אף על פי כן נמשך חיות לאבן על ידי צירופים וחילופי אותיות

nevertheless, life-force flows to the stone from the Ten Utterances by means of combinations and substitutions of their letters,

whereby an alef, for example, may take the place of a hei, since both letters are articulated by the same organ of speech, and so on,

המתגלגלות ברל״א שערים פנים ואחור, כמו שכתוב בספר יצירה

which are transposed in the “two hundred and thirty-one gates,” either in direct or reverse order,9 as is explained in Sefer Yetzirah,10

עד שמשתלשל מעשרה מאמרות ונמשך מהן צירוף שם אבן

so that ultimately the combination of letters [that forms] the name אבן descends from the Ten Utterances, and is derived from them,

והוא חיותו של האבן

and this combination of letters is the life-force of the stone.

וכן בכל הנבראים שבעולם

And so it is with all created things in the world.

The Holy Tongue, the Hebrew of the Torah, was the language used in creation. Thus, all created things are directly affected by their Hebrew names, as well as by the component letters of their names. In this, the Holy Tongue is unlike other, arbitrary languages, the meaning of whose words is the result of mere concensus.

השמות שנקראים בהם בלשון הקודש הן הן אותיות הדבור המשתלשלות ממדרגה למדרגה מעשרה מאמרות שבתורה

The names [of all creatures] in the Holy Tongue are the very letters of speech which descend, degree by degree, from the Ten Utterances recorded in the Torah,

על ידי חילופים ותמורות האותיות ברל״א שערים, עד שמגיעות ומתלבשות באותו נברא להחיותו

by means of substitutions and transpositions of letters through the “two hundred and thirty-one gates,” until they reach a particular created thing and become invested in it, thereby giving it life.

לפי שאין פרטי הנבראים יכולים לקבל חיותן מעשרה מאמרות עצמן שבתורה

This descent is necessary because individual creatures, unlike the more pervasive beings such as the heavens, earth, sun and moon, cannot receive their life-force directly from the actual Ten Utterances recorded in the Torah,

שהחיות הנמשך מהן עצמן גדול מאד מבחינת הנבראים פרטיים

for the life-force issuing directly from them is far greater than the capacity of the individual creatures; i.e., it is far too intense to serve as their life-force.

ואין כח בהם לקבל החיות אלא על ידי שיורד החיות ומשתלשל ממדרגה למדרגה פחותה ממנה, על ידי חילופים ותמורות האותיות

They can receive the life-force only when it descends and is progressively diminished, degree by degree, by means of substitutions and transpositions of the letters,

וגימטריאות, שהן חשבון האותיות

and by means of gematriot, their numerical values,

The life-force may be so muted that it reaches a created being not even through a transposition of letters, but merely through their numerical equivalent.

עד שיוכל להתצמצם ולהתלבש ולהתהוות ממנו נברא פרטי

until [the life-force] can be condensed and enclothed, and a particular creature can be brought forth from it.

וזה שמו אשר יקראו לו בלשון הקדש, הוא כלי לחיות המצומצם באותיות שם זה

And the name by which [the creature] is called in the Holy Tongue is a vessel for the life-force condensed into the letters of that name

שנשתלשל מעשרה מאמרות שבתורה, שיש בהם כח וחיות לברוא יש מאין ולהחיותו לעולם

which has descended from the Ten Utterances recorded in the Torah, that have the power and vitality to create a being ex nihilo and give it life forever.

דאורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא כולא חד

Why does it have the power to do so? — For11 “the Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one.” Just as G‑d has the ability to create ex nihilo, so too do the Ten Utterances of the Torah.

« Previous Shaar Hayichud Next » Chapter 2 FOOTNOTES 1.
Devarim 4:39.

Note of the Rebbe: “This verse continues the idea of an earlier verse [4:35], which begins with the phrase אתה הראת (‘You have been shown...’), and which refers to the time at which the Torah was given. At that time ‘G‑d spoke to you...’ (4:12), [with a warning against worshiping any of the components of the created universe]: ‘Lest you become corrupt’ [and worship creatures] of the lowest level, [viz.,] ‘any fish in the water below the earth’ [4:18], or of the highest level, [viz.,] ‘Lest you raise your eyes heavenward...’ [4:19].”

Tehillim 119:89.

Note of the Rebbe: “As mentioned in Likkutei Torah, beginning of Parshat Acharei, the germ of this concept is to be found in Midrash Tillim [on this verse].”

Bereishit 1:6.

Yeshayahu 40:8.

Liturgy, Morning Prayer.

Note of the Rebbe: “See also Etz Chayim, Portal 50 (ch. 2, 10).”

Note of the Rebbe: “Enumerated in detail in Sefer HaPardes, Shaar HaTziruf, ch. 5.”

The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet in two-lettered combinations yield a total of 462 combinations. Of these, half are the exact reverse of the other half, e.g., alef-bet, bet-alef. Hence, there are 231 two-lettered combinations in direct order and the same number in reverse order.

10. Ch. 2:4-5.

11. Cf. Zohar I, 24a; II, 60a.

  • Thank you Yaakov5777 for your answer. The question was looking for sources in Rishonim. All I see is a vague reference to the sefer yetzira. I think you should focus on that, and edit in the relevant sources and passages.
    – robev
    Sep 4, 2020 at 15:19
  • @robev the alter the alter rebbe was a rishon, since he has a neshama of Atzilus, as was the basal Shem Tov Sep 4, 2020 at 19:16
  • I'm not sure what that means, and I highly doubt that was the intention of the OP.. They probably want someone born before the 16th century.
    – robev
    Sep 4, 2020 at 19:39
  • @robev a neshama of Atzilus existed in Adam harishon, in the part that wasn't affected by the chayt, see end of likutei torah Sep 4, 2020 at 19:46
  • @robev and btw the Baal Shem Tov s teacher was aches hashiloni who was alive during Moshe's life Sep 4, 2020 at 19:57

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