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Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues: A Jewish Perspective


Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues: A Jewish Perspective


James Scott Trimm

The Ba`al Shem Tov said:
“When I wield my spirit to Elohim,
I let my mouth say what it will,
for then all my words are bound
to their root in Heaven”


Man was created in the image of Elohim. One of the ways that man was created in the image of Elohim was in being “male and female” (Gen. 1:26-27). But there is also another way in which man was created in the image of Elohim.

In Gen. 9:6 we are told that killing a man is a sin because man is “in the image of Elohim”. The preceding verses (9:2-5) tell us that man may kill and eat animals. Since many animals are “male and female” there must be more to man being “in the image of Elohim” than his being “male and female”. What is it that distinguishes man from animals?

The element about man that makes man “in the image of Elohim” while animals are not “in the image of Elohim” is the gift of speech.

The first two verses of Book of Jasher read:

1:1 And Elohim said, let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness,
and Elohim created man in his own image.
1:2 And YHWH Elohim formed man from the ground,
and he blew into his nostrils the breath of life,
and man became a living soul, endowed with speech.
(Jasher 1:1-2)

Note that Jasher 1:1 parallels Gen. 1:26-27 and Jasher 2:7 parallels Gen. 2:7 but adds the phrase "endowed with speech".

Now Targum Jonathan to Genesis 1:26 has "And the Word of YHWH said, let us make man in Our image." And Targum Onkelos to Gen. 2:7 adds a phrase at the end "and man became a spirit with speech".

Thus it would appear that man's gift of speech is the difference between man and animals so that man is "in the image of Elohim" while animals are not. It should also be noted that man was GIFTED with speech, Adam did not have to learn speech.

Isaiah prophesied about the manifestation of tongues:

Paul quoted directly from this scripture while teaching the assembly at Corinth about the gift of tongues. (1 Cor 14:21-22).

The gift of the manifestation of tongues is well known in the Rabbinic literature. The Talmud and midrashim both speak of this gift.

The “tongues of fire” event of Acts chapter two was a repetition of an event that took place at the first Shavuot (Shavuot is the aniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai). According to the Midrashim when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai the Torah message was divided up into the seventy languages of the Gentiles:

"Elohim's voice, as it was uttered, split into seventy voices,
into seventy tongues [leshonot], so that all the nations should understand."
(Midrash from Exodus Rabbah 5:9)

The Midrash also describes this event in even more detail:

In the occasion of Matan Torah [the giving of the Torah], the Bnai Yisrael [children of Israel] not only heard Hashem's Voice but actually saw the sound waves as they emerged from Hashem's mouth. They visualized them as a fiery substance. Each commandment that left Hashem's mouth traveled around the entire Camp and then to each Jew individually, asking him, "Do you accept upon yourself this Commandment with all the halochot [Jewish law] pertaining to it?"
Every Jew answered "Yes" after each commandment. Finally, the fiery substance which they saw engraved itself on the luchot [tablets].
(The Midrash Says; Rabbi Moshe Weissman. Benei Yakov Publications (1980) p. 182)

Thus the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh and the manifestation of tongues in Acts chapter 2 was a repetition of the gift of Torah and the manifestation of tongues that took place then.

Moreover the Talmud tells us that Yosef (Joseph) the patriarch was also given the gift of “kinds of tongues”:

Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba said in the name of Rabbi Johanan: "At the moment when Pharaoh said to Joseph, And without thee shall no man lift up his hand, Pharaoh's astrologers exclaimed: 'Wilt thou set in power over us a slave whom his master bought for twenty pieces of silver!' He replied to them, 'discern in him royal characteristics.' They said to him, 'in that case he must be acquainted with the seventy languages.' Angel Gabriel came and taught [Joseph] the seventy languages, but he could not learn them. Thereupon [Gabriel] added to his name a letter from the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and he knew [the languages]..."
(b.Sotah 36b)

The same story appears in the Book of Jasher:

And the angel roused him from his sleep, and Joseph rose up and stood upon his legs, and behold the angel of the Lord was standing opposite to him; and the angel of the Lord spoke with Joseph, and he taught him all the languages of man in that night, and he called his name Jehoseph.
(Jasher 49:14)

The name Yosef is sometines spelled in the Tanak Yahusef. According to the Talmud the extra letter “H” (hey) from the name of YHWH was added to his name thus giving him the knowledge of the seventy languages which he had been unable to learn. It is significant that in Jewish tradition the first HEY in the name of YHWH represents the Ruach HaKodesh. Thus Yosef received the Ruach HaKodesh and the gift of tongues.

TZERUF: Permutations of Letters

Each of the twenty-two Hebrew letters represents one of twenty-two paths which connect the Sefirot of the Tree of Life. Each of these twenty-two letters represents a relationship between two of the Sefirot and a combination of two of the Sefirot. These twenty-two letters are part of the image of Elohim and they took part in the creation. Messiah said that he is the ALEF and the TAV. The ALEF and the TAV are the first and last letters of the Hebrew Alphabet and are intended as an abbreviation to indicate that Messiah the incarnate "Word" embodied the twenty-two letters. When Elohim created the heavens and the earth he did so through words. Elohim "said" things and they were so. Elohim created the universe by his Word.

Each Hebrew word is more than a word, it is a matrix of dynamic relationships within the Godhead. Hebrew letters are also the building blocks of creation. In the upper worlds all things exist in their prime-material state as the strings of Hebrew letters and words which were the building blocks of creation. As we read in the Sefer Yetzirah:

Twenty-two Foundation letters: He engraved them,
He carved them, He permuted (TZIRUF) them,
He weighed them, He transformed them,
And with them, He depicted all that was formed
and all that would be formed.
(Sefer Yetzirah 2:2)

This brings us to what is called in Rabbinic Judaism "Khokhmat HaTziruf" (Wisdom of Permutation) or simply "Tziruf" (permutation). This practice utilizes the letters of the alphabet in various permutations. By immersing oneself in various permutations of letters and names one empties ones mind of the carnal thoughts that might interfere in focusing on the things of Elohim. Thus ones nefesh (soul), neshoma and ruach are freed from their natural constraints and opened to the influx of the Ruach HaKodesh. Through this process the believer is communing directly with the upper worlds and accessing the permutations of letters which are the creative substance of the universe, thus connecting with the worlds of formation and creation and the "Word", the ALEF and TAV through which all was created.

This practice is described in the Talmud:

Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: Bezalel knew how
to combine (TZIRUF) the letters by which the heavens
and earth were created. It is written here, And He hath filled
him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding,
and in knowledge (Ex. 35:31), and it is written elsewhere,
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding
He established the heavens (Prov. 3:19), and it is also written,
By His knowledge the depths were broken up (Prov. 3:20).
(b.Ber. 55a)

And in the Zohar:


R. Eleazar began here with the verse, “Ask thee
a sign [Hebrew: OT “sign” or “letter”] of the Lord thy God,
ask it either in the depth or in the height above” (Isa. 7:11).
He said: ‘We have compared the former with the latter
generations, and found that the former were conversant with
a higher wisdom by which they knew how to combine (TZIRUF)
the letters that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai,
and even the sinners of Israel knew a deep wisdom
contained in the letters and the difference
between higher and lower letters,
and how to do things with them in this world.
For every letter that was transmitted to Moses used to
ascend as a crown upon the heads of the holy celestial Hayyoth,
who with them flitted through the ether which is
under the refined and unknowable supernal ether. There
were large letters and small letters; the large letters came
from the most high and hidden Temple (hekhal) and the
smaller letters from another lower Temple; and both kinds
were transmitted to Moses on Sinai, along with their
hidden combinations.
(Zohar 3:2a)

Tzeruf is comparable to "machine language" in computer programming.

The Hebrew word for "tongue" (LASHON) and the Hebrew word TZIRUF (permutation) have the same gematria (numerical value) (386) which is also the gematria for the word YESHUA.

It is the practice of Tziruf which Paul speaks of when he writes:

For he who speaks in a tongue
does not speak to the sons of men but to Eloah,
for no man understands a thing that he speaks;
yet in the spirit he speaks a mystery.
(1Cor. 14:2)

If I were to pray in a tongue, my spirit prays,
but my understanding is without fruit.
(1Cor. 14:14)

When man was created he was given the gift of speech that he might manifest the image of Elohim. Through the manifestation of the gift of tongues man is able to manifest the image of Elohim on an even deeper level.


The Ba`al Shem Tov said:
“When I wield my spirit to Elohim,
I let my mouth say what it will,
for then all my words are bound
to their root in Heaven”


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Comment by Sergey Komarov on May 13, 2019 at 5:50pm

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the understanding that there were two ruachim (male & female) that were breathed into the first human (naphach being understood as plural), was initially interpreted from the time of the Babylonian captivity onwards. If this is true, I understand it to be true anyway (which is out of character for me to do so).

It's interesting that Jasher adds "endowed with speech" in its initial creation account (as does the Targum). I have read through the book of Yashar once, and I recall it giving the impression that many kinds of animals were initially capable of speech discernible to all (including humans). The Testament of Reuben claims that speech comes with knowledge and is the 5th ruach man was given (1:6). Ben Sira 17 asserts that the 5 senses are the senses of Elohim & part of the His image. Philo of Alexandria actually appeals to this as a known legend, but dismisses it as too fantastic. I don't have the citation in front of me, but I believe it 

The question of what distinguishes man from animals gets addressed in the above article. It is noted that language is a gift given to mankind and is what distinguishes man from beast. If this was the case, would it still make sense that the rebels at Babel would be punished with dispersion through means of a "gift"?

It would be interesting if there really is an additional layer of parallels between Sinai & Acts 2 with regards to the 70 tongues of fire. However, the latter instance is actually recounted in scripture, where it has a functional purpose to it. In the case of Sinai though, even though there were undoubtedly some foreign sojourners with the Israelites, what would be the purpose there being all 70 languages emitted if there almost certainly wasn't that big of a variety of speakers of those languages? While it would make sense that the harmony of all 70 possibly producing the sound of rushing waters, we neither have other witnesses nor actual scripture that backs up this assertion about the event at Sinai. Besides, what happened to the attitude that all the other languages are profane? Does this mean this hostility against other nations' languages unsubstantiated?

I had been aware of a connection between Psalm 81 with the story in Jasher about Joseph, since the MT spells his name to include Yah, nowhere else in the Tanakh does it get spelled this way. However, now that I know this connection is made in the Talmud, it actually made me check the LXX. It is understandable that its Greek counterpart would spell Joseph as Ἰωσὴφ like it does everywhere else, but given the late date of the completion of the Masoretic Text, this Talmud passage actually weakens the credibility of an altered spelling of Yahuceph in the original Ivrit. It is still interesting that the Tetragrammaton's first "hey" is supposed to represent the Ruach Ha'Kodesh, but could this tradition merely be a late ad hoc speculation merely to acommodate for this account of Joseph in Yashar?


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