Thursday, November 26, 2009
The Letter Ayin
The pronunciation of the letter ayin varies according to location. Initially, the sound created by ayin was very guttural, meaning that the sound was produced almost completely in one’s throat. An excellent example of this is the name of that sinful city, Gomorrah (as in Sodom and Gomorrah). The first letter of Gomorrah is an ayin not a gimmel. Many Middle Eastern communities still maintain this pronunciation, while most Ashkenazi communities read the ayin as a silent letter that assumes the sound of its accompanying vowel.
The numeric value of ayin is 70, a number of significance in Jewish life. The great legislative body of the Jewish people, the Sanhedrin had 70 members, just as there were 70 elders who led the Israelites. One of the qualifications to be a member of the Sanhedrin was knowledge of the 70 languages of the world (created when God destroyed the Tower of Babel and confused the people by dividing them into 70 nations with 70 languages). (Talmud Sanhedrin 17a)
The age of 70 is also considered to be the age when even those who are not scholars attain wisdom. (According to Jewish law one must rise in the presence of a person 70 years or older.) Perhaps this is related to the fact that 70 is the numeric value of ayin, which translates as eye. After 70 years, one has seen just about everything.
Bibliographical acknowledgment: The Wisdom In The Hebrew Alphabet: The Sacred Letters as a Guide to Jewish Deed and Thought. By Rabbi Michael L. Munk. Mesorah Publications, 1983.