Noach: Transmutation

Daily Insight #4

For the remaining days in this week of parshat Noach, we will concentrate on the window that Noah was commanded to make in the ark1 and the Ba’al Shem Tov’s famous explanation about it. The Hebrew word for “window” in the Torah is צהר , pronounced “tzohar.” Our teacher, the holy Ba’al Shem Tov taught that:2

The sweetening of harsh judgments at their source, spoken about in the writings of the Arizal, is accomplished by a transmutation of letters, for any decree is only letters. This is the deeper meaning of Noah being instructed to make a window in the ark; he was supposed to mitigate the harsh judgments into mercy by transmuting the letters of tzarah [trouble] into tzohar[window, or light].

What the Ba’al Shem Tov is revealing here is the manner in which miracles are worked in modern times, through the wisdom of linguistic transmutation. Two things whose names are similar can be transmuted one from the other.

Transmutation, language, and creation

There is a famous story in the Talmud3 regarding the sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. Rabbi Chanina lived in terrible poverty. One Friday evening, just after candle-lighting, his daughter realized that she had mistaken a vessel full of vinegar for a vessel with olive oil and had filled the Shabbat candles with vinegar instead of oil. Clearly the candles would soon go out and they would not have light on Shabbat eve. Rabbi Chanina saw his daughter’s sorrow and said: “He who declared that oil should burn, shall declare that vinegar should burn. And indeed, the candles did not go out all evening and all of the next day. With his seemingly simple words and deep faith Rabbi Chanina was able to perform an astounding miracle.

Using the Ba’al Shem Tov’s explanation, we can understand what Rabbi Chanina meant. “He who declared,” refers to the Almighty of course, specifically in His capacity as the Creator. How did God create the world? With speech! The story of Genesis actually relates how God declared the world into being. He declared that oil should burn. How did He do this? By simply calling oil by its Hebrew name, שמן (shemen)! Unlike other languages, which have naturally evolved, the Hebrew language is the language with which God created the world and everything in it. Whatever an object’s name is in Hebrew is its essence. Therefore, it follows that if we could access the letters—i.e., the essence, from which an object’s name is constructed—we could manipulate those letters to create a different word, thereby transmuting one object into another.

States of nothingness

How can we gain access to the letters that make up the essence of an object? Chassidut is founded on the observation that what is Above reflects that which is below. Creation as it occurred through God’s declaration is described as something from nothingness. Thus, the original order of letters comprising something’s name in Hebrew was an order that came out of nothingness. In order to change the order, to shuffle the letters, one has to return them to their source in nothingness and then they can be reordered. To do so, one must have access to the nothingness; this requires that one be able to experience the nothingness. Therefore, teaches the Ba’al Shem Tov, the first condition for being able to transmute reality is attaining a state of selflessness, or self-nullification in one’s own experience.

In Chassidut, selflessness is the experiential aspect of the sefirah of wisdom. Of wisdom, the verse says: “And wisdom is found from nothingness.”4 Indeed, there is an idiom which relates wisdom with letter permutations. The art of letter permutation is called “the wisdom of combinations.”5

Narrative and Transmutation

Offering even more insight into the process of linguistic transmutation, the Ba’al Shem Tov once explained6 that in order to change the order of the letters and transmute “trouble” (צרה) into “light” (צהר ), one must contemplate all the possible permutations, not just these two.

Every Hebrew verb is composed of three letters, which can be combined (always) in six different ways. Of course, not all of the possible six permutations have meaning.7 In the case of the three letters that make up “trouble,” only five permutations carry meaning. The Ba'al Shem Tov explained that in the transmutation process of "trouble" into "light" these five meaningful permutation proceed in the following order:

One first runs to perform a mitzvah (הרצ ) by which the trouble (צרה ) caused by the oppressor (הצר ) awakens new will (רצה ) Above that transforms the will of the oppressor below thereby creating a new light (צהר ) by revealing the 370 lights of the face of the Living King.
We will return to look at this "transmuting narrative" in more depth shortly.

The Art of Permutations

To truly understand the manner in which the various permutations are connected, and how the Ba'al Shem Tov's transformation narrative was formed, we have to explain the way how every similar set of six possible permutations formed from three letters corresponds to thesefirot. To understand the model let us look at God’s essential Name, Havayah: י ־הוה . This is not just an arbitrary choice. Rather, the most important word in Hebrew is God’s essential Name and it is the seminal word of the entire language.

We are all familiar with the correspondence between the four letters of Havayah and thesefirot:

י wisdom




loving-kindness thru foundation



Of the four letters of the Name, only 3 are unique: י (yud), ה (hei), and ו (vav). We will take these three letters as the origin of our six possible permutations. Though normally the vavstands for the six sefirot from loving-kindness thru foundation, sometimes the vavcorresponds to the key of these six sefirot, the sefirah of knowledge. The three letters י , ה , and ו thus correspond to the intellectual sefirot: wisdom, understanding, and knowledge:8




Now, without getting into the rationale behind this correspondence,9 the six possible permutations of these six letters correspond to the sefirot in the following manner:







Regardless of which three letters we begin with, if we can correspond them correctly with the three intellectual sefirot, we can correctly identify the correspondence of their six permutations with the six emotive sefirot. Thus, when looking at the three letters that make up the word צרה (trouble), the most important step is to correctly identify the role that each of the three letters plays.
In this case:

  • ר (reish) corresponds to wisdom. “Reish” in Hebrew means “head,” or “beginning,” thus alluding to the verse: “The beginning of wisdom….”10
  • ה (hei) corresponds (as in the letters of God’s Name) to understanding.
  • צ (tzadik) corresponds to knowledge. “Tzadik” is the connotation of the sefirah of foundation (as in the verse: “The tzadik is the foundation of the world”11). Foundation originates in knowledge. This is one of the secrets of shaking the lulav, which symbolizes foundation and the procreative organs, pushing it up to awaken knowledge from whence the seminal drop originates.

Now we can continue to correspond the six possible permutations of these three letters with the sefirot, as follows:







Immersing in the narrative

Now, let us return to the narrated meditation we introduce above. The order of the permutations in it is from 1) הרץ (running) – acknowledgment to 2) הצר (oppressor) – might to 3) צרה (trouble) – beauty to 4) רצה (will) – victory to 5) צהר (light) – foundation.

Running (to do a mitzvah) is the beginning of any spiritual path. Its correspondence with acknowledgment reminds us of the first thing we begin our spiritual work in the morning with:Modeh Ani, which is a statement of our acknowledgment of God’s faith in us.

Performing the mitzvah itself requires us to overcome an oppressor, our own evil inclination, which requires a tremendous amount of might to battle against its might.

This same might is needed to surmount its offspring, a state of trouble, just as beauty is an offspring of might.

Victory comes when the will of the oppressor is transformed by his being drawn by the depth of height (עומק רום ) of Sefer Yetzirah, which corresponds to victory. This is the intent inherent in the benediction of רצה (“May You [God] will…”) of the Amidah, which follows the benediction of שֹׁמֵעַ תפלה (“He who hears prayers…”) which corresponds to beauty.

Finally, the new will formed in victory is drawn down into foundation, where a new light is born, light that is alluded to in the verse: “The light of tzadikim will be joyful.”12 The value of this verse in Hebrew, אור צדיקים ישמח is 819, which is also the value of ימות המשיח (“the days of the Mashiach) and the value of דוד מלך ישראל חי וקים (“David, the kind of Israel, is alive and well,” thanks to this light of the tzadikim that constantly heals him) and to the value of אחדות הפשוטה (“the simple Oneness”). 819 is also the “pyramid” of 13, i.e., the sum of squares from 12 to 132, (13 = אחד , or “one,” in Hebrew).

Finally, let us go back to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s original teaching, that one can transmute צרהinto צהר , trouble into light. We have discovered that these two words correspond to beauty and foundation, illustrating the idiom that “the body [beauty] and the [organ of] covenant [foundation] are one.” What we have also seen is that the narrative meditation covering all 5 meaningful permutations does not begin with beauty, but it does end with foundation. What this tells us is that the state of “trouble” is not the beginning. Rather, it is the result of the need for us to overcome states of oppression in our pursuit of a path that reveals God’s new light in the world. Indeed, these troubles are only temporary and only serve in the end to add energy to the new light that is ultimately revealed.

1. Genesis 6:16.

2Keter Shem Tov 1:87.

3Ta’anit 25a.

4. Job 28:12.

5. מצרף לחכמה . The modern mathematical field dealing with permutations is called “combinatorics.”

6. See the fifth teaching taught to the Rebbe Rashab in 5652 (appearing in the addendum toKeter Shem Tov).

7. Rabbi Avraham Abulafia teaches that with the coming of the Mashiach all possible combinations will have meaning. The redemption expands the range of our understanding of language in general. More specifically, since Hebrew is the language of God and the language with which God created the cosmos, extending Hebrew indicates a deeper connection to the Almighty and a wider understanding of nature.

8. In holiness, it is the intellect that gives birth to the measures of the heart. The mind studies Torah and the heart is then refined with the insight of the intellect.

9Pri eitz chayimsha’ar halulav, ch. 3. The secret of this correspondence was revealed by the Ba’al Shem Tov himself in his intentions for the mikveh (Keter Shem Tov, 1:2). See in length our Hebrew volume, Sod Hashem Liyer’ai’av, pp. 102-4. See also Zohar III, 17a.

10. Psalms 111:10.

11. Proverbs 10:25.

12. Proverbs 13:9.

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