According to Rabbeinu Nissim (Nedorim 2a), most languages are based on consensus. Why are cats called cats and why are fish called fish? Because everyone agrees that “cats” are a species of furry quadruped and that “fish” are scaly inhabitants of the seas. But Lashon Hakodesh is different — Hash- em forged its letters and words and used them as the building blocks of creation. A similar principle applies to notrikon, the initialization of words, saying Shas instead of Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, or Rambam instead of Rav Moshe ben Maimon. In Hebrew, notrikons are not only space savers and memory devices, but often the vehicle of Torah lessons and kabalistic teachings.
The Power of Notrikon
Where do we find the concept of notrikon in the Torah? The Gemara (Shabbos 105a) cites the incident where Hashem changes Avrom’s name to Avrohom (Bereishis 17:5) and explains to him, Ki av hamon goyim nesaticha, For I have made you the father of many nations. Actually, this notrikon is extremely unusual, first because it is crafted not from the initial letters of words but from the first two letters of Av and hamon, and also, because the reish of Avrohom is not derived from notrikon at all, but is a carry-over from Avrom. According to the Medrash Lamed Beis Midos, this pasuk teaches us that notrikon is one of the rules (midos) used to derive halachah from pesukim.
Notrikon is also one of three principal methods used by kabala to derive hidden teachings from pesukim and words, namely, gematriya, temurah (substituting one letter for another), and notrikon. A well known example of this is Rabbi Yehuda’s notrikon of the Ten Plagues, Datzach, Adash, Ba’achav. Were there so many plagues that we need a notrikon to remember them?
In his Rimzei Ha ’eser Makos recited by many Jews on erev Pesach, Rav Shimshon of Astripoli explains that the words Datzach, Adash, Ba’achav are not merely a handy way of remembering the plagues. Rather, he says, these initial letters constitute the holy Divine names Hashem used to redeem us from Egypt. Perhaps this Divine spark of Datzach, Adash, Ba’achav is what endowed the plagues with their power and potency.
Despite notrikon’s spiritual significance, Rabbeinu Chananel (Shabbos 105a) writes that the actual word is of foreign etymology. “Notrikon is a Greek word,” he writes. “The scribes of their kings and ministers had a way of writing they called notrikon. A king would tell his scribe to write a draft, and as he dictated to him what to write the scribe wrote one word that hints at many. Thus, in one line he wrote a whole letter.” In similar vein, “notary” of modern English derives from the Latin notarius, meaning a short hand writer, clerk, or secretary.
It is worth noting that notrikon comes in two varieties. The common form is to telescope many words into one by using their first letters to form a new word or words. For example, we form the word Tanach from the initials of its component sections, Torah, Nevi’im, and Ke- suvim.
In a less common form of notrikon, the letters of one word represent many words. For example, Chazal say that a zoken (wise person) is someone who acquired wisdom (zeh kanah chochmoh, Kiddushin 32b). When Shimi ben Gera cursed King Dovid with a kelala nim- retzes (grievous curse, I Melachim 2:8), he was accusing him of being a No’ef, Moavi, Rotze’ach, Tzorer, and To’eva (Shabbos 105b).
A Tool of Learning
The Gemara utilizes notrikon as a memory aid by reducing the initials of people or concepts to a couple of words. In one example (Shabbos 187), the letters Sharna”m Shapa”z are initials of sages’ names mentioned in a previous discussion. The Gemara insists that these simonim are a vital tool for remembering learning, warning in Eruvin (54a) that “the Torah cannot be acquired except with simonim.” In a similar vein, the Mishnah (Machshirin 6:4) states, “The people of Yehuda who were precise with their words and made simo- nim remembered their Torah learning; the people of Galil who were imprecise with their words and did not make simonim did not remember their Torah learning.”
Yet early Gemara manuscripts have more simonim than our printed versions of Shas, perhaps reflecting people’s lessening reliance on memory after the proliferation of printed books, and in reflection of the kabalistic significance of simonim mentioned earlier, the holy Shlo insists that the simonim found in the Gemara are not mere memory devices but the repositories of secret wisdom. “I have seen many people who do not learn or read simonim when they appear in the Gemara,” he complains. “Heaven forefend to do such a thing. I think that great secrets are hinted in the simonim in addition to the simple matters indicated by the simon.”
The Gemara also uses notrikons to sum up halachic rulings. When Motza ’ei Shabbos falls on Yom Tov, the Gemara concludes that the correct order of Havdalah is to say the blessings as follows: Yaknahaz (yayin, Kiddush, ner, havdalah, zeman [Shehecheyanu]). Because of a strong homophonic similarity between Yaknahaz and the German phrase jag den has (hunt the hare), many medieval Haggados embellished their Havdalah pages with woodcuts of people hunting hares.
After the sealing of Shas, people continued creating acronyms to remember halachic rules including the well known Ya”d shacha”t da”m, hand, slaughter, blood, which represents the seven fluids
susceptible to tumah (impurity) — yay- in (wine), devash (honey), shemen (oil), chalav (milk), tal (dew), and mayim (water).
The initializer’s axe stopped at nothing. Many surnames were created through initialization. Azulai is based on the pasuk, Ishah zonah vechalala lo yikach (Vayikra 21:7) and Katz based on the words kohein tzedek, hinting that the bearers of these names are kohanim, while Segal (sagan Leviyah) and Bloch (bnei Levi kulanu) indicate that a person is a Levi.
Scribes and printers initialized the names of seforim to save time and space, including many seforim of the Tanach. This led to an intriguing (but incorrect) explanation of our old minhag of having two versions of a sentence at the end of benching. On weekdays we say magdil yeshu ’os malko: He is a tower of salvations for His king (Tehillim 18:51), while on Shabbos and some other days we say migdol yeshu ’os malko (II Shem- uel 22:51).
The Baruch She ’amar (by the author of Torah Temimah) suggested that the verse people used was originally migdol. Then, a printer inserted the letters Beis shin beis, indicating that its source was in the second volume of sefer Shemuel, and years later, printers thought that the letters beis shin beis stood for “to be said on Shabbos” and innovated the rule that migdol is restricted to Shabbos and replaced with magdil on weekdays.
Though a cute explanation, it is incorrect. The minhag of saying migdol/mag- dil was mentioned by Abudraham in the 14th century when the division of sefer Shemuel into two parts did not yet exist. Shemuel existed as one volume until the 15th century when Christian printers found it too large to be issued as a single book and split it into Shemuel I and She- muel II. Therefore, the custom of saying migdol/magdil cannot be the result of a misunderstood reference to Shemuel II. Indeed, the Abudraham himself writes that he received the tradition of migdol/ magdil from his teachers and explains
that we use migdol on Shabbos because it is the more significant of the two versions due to its spelling and its placement in Tanach.
The Gravestone Controversy
Modern Hebrew has many words that are acronyms in disguise. These include everyday words like tapuz (tapuach zahav, orange, literally, apple of gold), doch (din vecheshbon, official report), and nadlan (nichsei delo naydi, real estate).
Hebrew’s most unusual acronym was coined in 1969 after the inhabitants of the village of Zar’it on the Lebanese
border were informed that it was to be renamed “Kefar Rosenfeld” in honor of an American philanthropist. When the village’s inhabitants opposed the name, Israeli officials brilliantly proclaimed that henceforth Zar’it would stand for: Zecher Rosenfeld imanu yisha’er ta- mid — Rosenfeld’s remembrance will always be with us.
In the last few decades, controversy has arisen due to Hebrew and English possessing different modes of differentiation between abbreviations and normal words. English indicates abbreviations by placing dots between letters, i.e., U.S.A. or B.C.E., although nowadays, this rule is increasingly ignored. The new trend is to leave out the dots, simply writing USA or BCE. Hebrew
abbreviations, on the other hand, are indicated by placing a gershayim before the last letter such as in Sha”s and Ramba”m.
Due to this lingual difference, a minor imbroglio erupted concerning the punctuation of the gravestone inscription Tehei nishmaso tzerura bitzror ha- chaim (May his soul be bound up in the bundle of life, I Shemuel 25:9). In imitation of the inscription R.I.P. (rest in peace), many people punctuate the Hebrew with dots leading one gravestone manufacturer to complain: “There are people who write T.N.T.B.H. This is a gross mistake because [in Hebrew] dots are not used for abbreviations. All abbreviations use the gershayim.”
Although some long standing chevros kaddisha in Yerushalayim refuse to go along with this new trend due to its break with tradition, at least one major poseik ruled that despite the novelty of the practice there is nothing inherently wrong with it.
Meanwhile, Hebrew initializations and acronyms have increased by leaps and bounds to the extent that a 1924 book of roshei teivos lists almost sixteen thousand abbreviations in use by that time, and the Otzar Rashei Teivos printed in 1994 lists over a hundred different interpretations of the initialization aleph”aleph ranging from Av- rohom Avinu to Eshes Ish. So long as people want to save time, paper, and printer’s ink, the fight to be brief will never end.