The Baal Shem Tov was fourteen years old when he was adopted by a wandering hidden tzaddik. His teacher sat with him in the forest and taught him the Kabbalistic teachings. Together, they practiced various forms of meditation upon the combinations of letters and words in the prayers and the psalms.

Later, he became an assistant to a melamed (a Torah teacher for children). Typically, the Baal Shem Tov understood that anything he had learned of Torah, even of its deepest secrets, must have meaning for even the simplest child. After all, it is only one Torah and it belongs to all of us. So he taught the children that the Hebrew letters were imprisoned on the page, and that their job was to free them from there to return to their Master Above. All they had to do was breathe life into them, by saying the words with passion and earnestness. Later, when he became the grand chassidic master of masters, he taught adults the same lesson.

The Zohar speaks of four aspects to every letter. Rabbi Chaim Vital, in the name of his teacher, the Ari, explains that these correspond to the four layers of the human being. Everything that has to do with the human being, the Ari explains, comes in fours:

  1. Taamim: The motifs by which the words are sung, represented by cantillation marks that may be written in the text. This corresponds to the level of soul called neshama.
  2. Nekudot: The vowel expressions for each letter, which may also be represented with simple points and lines under, above and within the letters. This corresponds to the level of soul called ruach.
  3. Tagim: Small crowns that are added to many of the letters in a Torah scroll. This corresponds to the level of soul called nefesh.
  4. Otiot: The letters themselves. This corresponds to the body of the human being.

You'll note a distinction between levels 1–2 and levels 3–4. The lower levels are both written on the parchment of the Torah scroll. The higher levels of taamim and nekudot are not. In many books, we may also write the taamim and nekudot, but only as an aid, not a requirement. Essentially, they are meant to be supplied by the reader.

Again, this corresponds to the human being: The body comes inherently with its own vitality, called nefesh. Even after death, the nefesh remains with the body until the time of resurrection.

Ruach, on the other hand, is a vitality that the body feels coming from beyond, picking it up and making it into a living being, so that every cell of the body acts with life and the entire organism, down to every cell protects and preserves that life with an ultimate sense of ownership. This is very much like the nekudot that we breathe into the letters, endowing them with form, movement and life.

Rabbi Chaim Vital compares this effect of the ruach to the craft of glass-blowing. Here again, we blow into a solid mass to provide it form. Rabbi Chaim's point is that the glass doesn't simply mold to the breath—it becomes a body to house the form of that breath. (Fascinating to note: Until about the 16th century, glassmaking was almost entirely a Jewish craft. To this day, names such as Glaser, Glassner, Glasier, etc. are typically Jewish names.)

The nekudot, then, direct us to add basic life to the letters. Beyond this, the letters need a neshama, which we also provide. Neshama provides not only meaning and purpose to the letters, but most importantly some flavor. In fact, taamim literally means "flavors." Those who read the Torah without melody or song, the rabbis taught, demonstrate that it is a burden for them. So maybe we'll have to do another KToon on taamim and singing the Torah. Hmmmm…

In the meantime, keep singing life into those letters. Give them just a little life, and they'll give you back a whole lot more, as they say, "It is a tree of life for all those who hold tight to it..."