Question your tea spoons


When a person is sick, Jews pray for him by reciting the verses of Psalms that begin with the letters of his name; Psalm 119 is often used for this purpose, as it is made of 22 sets of eight verses that begin with the same Hebrew letter, and the sets are arranged alphabetically—or, perhaps, aleph-betically. Accordingly, my Hebrew name, Yosef, is symbolized by Psalm 138:8, which in Hebrew begins with a yod, the first letter of Yosef, and ends with a fey, the last letter of Yosef; the entirety of the sentence that should save my life reads, in English: “The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands.” Indeed, it seems like the majority of Jewish liturgy not taken directly from the Torah is made of devotions arranged by permutations of letters, and interpolations of sums: for centuries, rabbis have composed acrostic prayers that spell their own names; and any visit to any synagogue on any day of the week at any of the three daily services will tell you that the number of times a text is repeated is just as important as what that repeated text actually means. The occasion for these thoughts is no religious epiphany, but rather a rereading of French writer Georges Perec, whose 1978 masterpiece Life: A User’s Manual was just republished in a definitive translation by David Bellos.

more from Joshua Cohen at Tablet here.