Although you cannot tell from the translations, if you look at a Torah scroll, certain letters are written larger or smaller than the rest of the letters. These letters have been carefully copied by scribes in a chain of tradition1 that, according to some opinions,2 can be traced all the way back to Sinai.3

Fascinatingly, the oversized and undersized letters of the Torah make up the entire aleph-bet.4 According to the sages, each of these letters hints to deeper meanings and secrets of the Torah.

What Do the Differently Sized Letters Mean?

The mystics explain that the Divine energy flows into this world through the Hebrew letters of the Torah. The oversized letters represent the Divine attribute of chesed (“kindness”), and the small letters are associated with the attribute of gevurah (often translated as “might,” which is associated with restraint and withholding of His radiance).5

To illustrate some of the deeper meanings behind these letters, we’ll bring just a few examples, with the understanding that each example really has multiple layers of meaning, well beyond the scope of this article.

The Small Hei of Creation

When recounting the creation of the world, the verse states, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, on the day that the L‑rd G‑d made earth and heaven.” The word בְּהִ֣בָּֽרְאָ֑ם, “when they were created,” is written with a small hei. The mystics explain that the world was created through G‑d’s hiding His Divine energy.6 Thus, the word can also be read as “be’hei baram,” “He created [the world] with the [truncated] letter hei.”

Big Aleph vs. Small Aleph

The aleph in the first word of Leviticus, וַיִּקְרָ֖א, “He called,” is small. In contrast, we find that aleph in the word “Adam” at the beginning of the book of Chronicles is large. The chassidic masters explain that the small aleph alludes to Moses’ humility even as G‑d called upon him to take an exalted role in human history. In contrast, the aleph in Adam’s name is written larger than usual, alluding to Adam’s self-esteem as the acme of G‑d’s creation. Although it is both necessary and good to be aware of one’s positive qualities, Adam allowed his self-esteem to degenerate into conceit, and this caused his ultimate downfall with the sin of the forbidden fruit.

Moses rectified Adam’s mistake. He recognized his greatness but nevertheless remained humble. His humility was not self-delusional, but the result of simple reasoning. “I cannot take any credit for any of my gifts or accomplishments,” he thought, “since they are all G‑d-given.”

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The Big Yud of the 10 Tests

After the episode of the spies returning from the Land of Israel and giving a bad report, G‑d was angered and wished to punish His nation. Moses implored G‑d to spare them, and before invoking G‑d’s 13 Attributes of Mercy, he said: “Therefore, I pray, let my L‑rd’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying . . .”7 The word יִגְדַּל (“be great”)is written with an oversized yud, which has the numerical value of ten. Thus, the commentaries explain that Moses was in effect saying to G‑d, “The Jews may have tested You in the desert ten times, but remember our righteous forefather Abraham, whose faith you tested with ten trials and he withstood them all.”8

The Large Ayin and Dalet of Shema

The Shema prayer is an affirmation that G‑d is the only true existence: “Hear, O Israel: G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is one.” Not only is there a biblical commandment to recite the Shema twice daily, this succinct statement has become so central to the Jewish people that it is the climax of the final Ne’ilah prayer of Yom Kippur, and is traditionally a Jew’s last words on earth.

The last letters of the first and last words of Shema are oversized letters: שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל ה אֱלֹקינוּ ה | אֶחָֽד. One explanation is that the large letter ayin, which has the numerical value of 70, alludes to the idea that all 70 nations should hear (שְׁמַ֖ע) this message. The dalet, with the numerical value of four, represents the four directions of the world, alluding to the imperative that G‑d’s oneness be revealed in all places. Another explanation is that together these letters make up the word עד, “witness,” for when we testify to G‑d's oneness, G‑d, so to speak, “testifies” to our unique role in the world.9

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This is but a very small sampling of some of the explanations behind the abnormally sized letters of the Torah, which are among the countless examples of how every nuance of the Torah is perfect, rich with meaning, and deep beyond our understanding.