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The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish | How's That Spelled, Part 3

The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish, In Eight Parts

By Mark L. Berch


As the story of Judith and Tamar reaches its climax, the translation of Genesis 38:25 gives, "As she was being brought out, she sent...."  But the Sefer Torah doesn't seem to say that.  The second "she" is hey-yod-aleph, exactly as it should be.  But the first she, the opening word in the verse, is hey-vav-aleph.  As it happens, that's the Hebrew word for "he".  Oh, its understood as "she", it's even pronounced as as hee ("she") not as hu "("he").  It seems to be a spelling mistake.  But it's not treated as a mistake to be corrected.  The scribe must print it exactly as  hey-vav-aleph.  Moreover, this spelling appears far, far more often than the "right" way, which suggests, alternatively, that this is another correct spelling for "she".

This bit of gender confusion is only the most common of the Sefer Torah's shall we say, spelling oddities.  Another concerns the word lamed-vav, pronounced "low",  which means "to him/it".  But at Leviticus 27:30 (and two other places), it is inexplicably spelled lamed-aleph, which of course means "no/not".  A blend of these spellings appears at Genesis 31:35, where the word appears in the context of "not", only this time it is spelled not lamed-aleph, but lamed-vav-aleph.

Actually, this latter is an example of a class of errors, or spelling variants if you prefer, where an extra letter is slipped in.  These are called "mah-lay" in Hebrew ("full") or plene in English.  The opposite is where a letter is "khaser", ("absent") in Hebrew, or defective in English.  For example, the word na-a-rah appears without its final hey in all but one place.  The may-chato in Genesis 20:6 is missing an aleph.  For these types of errors, those tiny letters vav and yod are most often the culprit, but aleph and hey can also show up (or be missing).  But they occur in a bewildering array.  For example,  Chapter 1 of Numbers gives an account of a census,and the word "shaymot" (names) appears 13 times.  Six times it has a vav; seven times it does not.  Go figure.

Indeed, it can be a semantic question even whether there is a spelling variant at all.  The verb for "fashion" normally appears with one yod, but at Genesis 2:7 it has two yods, where a human is fashioned.  Is this a spelling variant, or is there a slightly different verb for fashioning humans?

In fact, plene and defective words are endemic.  In the entire Bible (including Prophets and the Writings) there are more than 1300 of these.  With such large numbers, the integrity of the texts can be called into question.  Indeed, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (a turn of the century updating of the Shulkhan Arukh) states that the scrolls in use today are not always absolutely correct.  This problem was recognized as far back as the Talmud.  As Rabbi Abramowitz has noted, the vav in the word "gakhon" in Lev. 11:42 is taken to be the middle letter in the Torah.  The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) records a fourth century discussion as to whether this vav belongs to the first or the second half of the Bible.  The response was a call to count the letters.  But the Talmud then notes ruefully that the Palestinian scholars "were thoroughly versed in defective and plene readings, but we are not."

A variation on this is a word that doesn't look right, but is read as it is written, but is understood differently.    At Deuteronomy 17:19, bet-vav appears, which is pronounced "bo", but that's the wrong gender.  A special side note (called a s'virin; it's not in the Sefer Torah itself) reminds the reader to understand it as if were written bet-heh, or "ba".  There are a number of these.

Actually, the final form of the Sefer Torah text was established by a form of odd-man-out.  The Jerusalem Talmud records that the Temple Court housed three different Pentateuch texts.  One was called Codex Meon, because at Deut. 33:27, it had "meon", while the other two had "meona" (with an extra hey at the end).  A second was called Codex Zaatutay, because it had that word at Exodus 24:5; the other two had Naaray.  The third was called Codex Hee, because it had Hee as hay-yod-aleph nine times, while the others had it eleven times.  In each case, the majority reading was used, even though the final result was a text that didn't exactly correspond to any of the three Codexes.

Indeed, it sometimes seems like no word, no matter how important, is immune.  The width of a column of text was set by the rabbis to be able to take the longest word in the Torah three times.  This comes to a width of 30 letters, since the longest word, le-mish-pechotaychem (meaning "to their families", or "by families") has 10 letters.  Not, of course, that there would be any reason to actually write that word three times.  In fact, the word only appears once in the Sefer Torah, at Genesis 8:19.  But if you turn there, and count the letters, you'll find --- surprise, surprise -- only nine!  The vav (present when the word appears at Joshua 18:21) is missing.


Next: When the Torah is read, what you see isn't necessarily what you get.