Emmet: The Awesome Hebrew Word for Truth
Make God the beginning of truth, and everything else is illuminated.
It was my senior year of college, and I had room for one elective. As a dedicated Bible Christian, I had a strong desire to learn the original languages of the Scriptures, and I jumped at the chance to take a class on biblical Hebrew. James Madison University is a secular state school, and there were no other Bible classes offered, let alone biblical language classes. To add to the excitement, this was also the first time the university was offering biblical Hebrew.
The class was taught by an orthodox Jewish professor of computer science. He was as quirky as any professor could be, but he was full of stories and experiences that related directly to what he was teaching. One of the important lessons that we learned about the Hebrew language is that there are many hidden treasures in its words. By examining the construction of the words, deeper meanings and relationships between terms could be extracted.
The one lesson that I will never forget was our professor’s explanation of the Hebrew word emmet, which means “truth.” But it means “truth” in a very specific sense. The word itself has a structure that makes it mean more than just a truth or this or that truth. Emmet means the whole truth: beginning, middle and end, and this meaning is based on the word itself and its relation to the Hebrew Alphabet.
Some of the Hebrew letters have two forms: a form for when the letter appears at the end of a word and a form for when the letter appears any other time. If the whole twenty-two letter alphabet were listed out plus the five final forms of the letters that have one, there would be twenty-seven characters. Then, if you took the first, 14th and 27th letters, the first, middle and last, you would have the letters that make up the word emmet. Truth is not just one piece of the truth, but the whole thing, beginning, middle and end. If some part of the truth is left out, then it is not really the truth.
As I said, I was a Bible Christian at the time, having discovered in college a personal relationship with Jesus, Who is the Truth. But my faith had to be refined. I dove head first into studying the Bible and reading as many great Christian books as I could get my hands on. I wanted as much of the truth as I could get and even began to study philosophy, but I didn’t realize just how much of the truth I was missing out on. As so many other converts and reverts have said, I discovered the fullness of the truth in the Catholic Church, but this realization came only after doing everything I could to disprove all Romish claims to truth.
So, it was as a Catholic that I learned the second treasure hidden in the word emmet, as explained to me by an acquaintance who is a rabbi. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet also double as numbers. The first letter, aleph, represents the number one; the second letter, bet, represents the number two; etc. The number one is symbolic of God, Who is One. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” is one possible translation of the Shema. No other society has been as vehemently monotheistic as the Jews. That first letter of the alphabet that represents the number one is also the first letter in emmet. But when that letter is removed from emmet, only met remains, which is the Hebrew word for death. Take away God from truth, and you get death. Include God, and you get fullness of truth. As a Christian, I see symbolized in that word the miracle that when God unites Himself with us in our death, we see the full truth of God’s love for us.
As a student of philosophy, I can see the decomposition of emmet played out in the history of ideas. As God is pushed further and further away from a worldview, the more deadly that worldview is to itself and to those who hold it. Without God, we lose a right understanding, not only of reality and its source, but of our very selves and the possibility of being a self. Big mistakes have big consequences, and any philosophy that is blind to God is blind to everything. Unfortunately, we can only see according to the lenses that we wear, and if our philosophy has rendered us unaware of the importance of God, then we are unaware of the importance of God.
At the same time, in my study of Catholic philosophers I see the unity and beauty of emmet in, most especially, the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Make God the beginning of truth, and everything else is illuminated. With the God Who Is, we can make sense of everything we experience and that by which we experience everything else: our very selves. Remove God, and truth and reality and the human person fall apart. Include God, and even things as ordinary to us as words have more meaning than we know.