As we begin again the yearly cycle of Torah reading and study, it’s a good time to consider a question that has puzzled many: Why does the Torah begin with the second letter of the alphabet, the letter Bet, instead of Aleph, the first letter?
There is a remarkable story related in the Talmud (Megillah 9:1): King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt sequestered 72 rabbinic sages in 72 separate houses without revealing the purpose. He then went and visited each one separately and demanded that they translate the entire Torah of Moses into Greek. (This translation is now known as the Septuagint, from the Latin septuaginta, or seventy. It was the first full translation of the Torah, and almost all later translations of the Bible were based on this translation.)
The rabbis, who were concerned that a literal translation would betray the intent and oral tradition of numerous passages in the Torah, were in a conundrum. Without being able to communicate with each other — which was the king’s goal — they could either translate literally but leave the Torah open to wrong and even dangerous misinterpretation, or translate it as the tradition had been passed down from Moses. If their translations weren’t all the same, King Ptolemy would be convinced the sages were frauds and the translation inaccurate. So God miraculously inspired each of the 72 rabbis to independently make the same exact same numerous changes in the translation.
The first change was right in the beginning. A straight translation of the first verse would render the following: “In the beginning created God.” The word God is the third word in the verse. The first word, bereishit (in the beginning), might — to a Hellenistic pagan ruler who routinely defied humans — prove that another deity created God. So all 72 sages were inspired to translate identically as follows: “God created in the beginning,” which, in the Hebrew, meant that the first letter was Aleph, not Bet.
Why then couldn’t our Hebrew Torah begin with an Aleph? Why just the Greek version? One of the answers given in Kabbalah is that we must always be aware that we are not starting Torah at the beginning, we always arrive at Bet, stage two. For there are two dimensions to the Torah: There is the Torah of logic and reason — and then there’s the Torah of transcendence where we mere mortals attempt to understand and integrate the will and reason of the creator of the world into our minds and hearts.
That is why the first page of every tractate of the Talmud begins with Daf Beit, page two; the first page is blank. If we believe we know how the beginning started, then we assume there has to be an end as well, for all beginnings have endings. However, the Torah reflects God himself, the Ein Sof, the Infinite. By starting with Bet, we are aware that there is a beginning that precedes us in time, space and consciousness.
This is also the reason why, before we study Torah each day and any time we receive an aliyah to the Torah, we make the blessing in the present tense: Notein haTorah, Giver of Torah. For every time we encounter God, we need an access code to be able to connect to the omnipotent giver of Torah; the code is the Aleph. The Aleph is the timeless faith that we have that our connections and fidelity to the Torah aren’t based on logic and reason.
That is why the sages were so agitated. How else to explain for the Hellenists, for whom there was no such thing as submitting to a higher power? Logic and reason were the highest ideals to be worshipped. Faith in God is the bedrock on which Judaism rests; it has been part of our DNA since Abraham, the first Jew.
That is why Ptolmey’s Torah had to begin with Aleph. For the world at large, the Torah is mainly studied rationally. For the Jewish people, it always was faith first. That always was our “Aleph”.
So we begin at Bet each year, not starting from the very beginning again, but determined to improve and grow from last year, in study and practice.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com.