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The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish | Why Did She Read It That Way, Part 4

The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish, In Eight Parts

By Mark L Berch

The sofer, or scribe, goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure the text is copied correctly.  When the Torah is read, there is not one but two gabbayim following along with a voweled text, ready to pounce at any mispronunciation.  So you would think that the Torah reader would read the text exactly as it is.  You would think that, and you would be wrong.

For tradition has it that two Torahs given at Sinai, the reading (“keri”) and the writing (“ketiv”) Torah.  They aren’t identical.  The scribe must write the ketiv, the Torah reader must read the keri.

The most important difference is the word yod-hey-vav-hey, the “tetragrammaton” (Greek for “4-letter-word”) which is the principle and most sacred name for God.  Moses is told this name  at Exodus 6:2, although some say this name was given in a slightly different form at Exodus 3:13-14 as aleph-hey-yod-hey.  The Third commandment appears to be directed to making sure this name is not taken in vain.  Even the patriarchs and matriarchs weren’t specifically told this name, and the High Priest got to say it only once a year.  In short, to use the modern colloquialism, “we are not worthy”, and the word is pronounced “Adonai” (which can also mean my master or my Lord).  In the voweled texts, the vowels of Adonai are placed on the yod-hey-vav-hey as a reminder of the required pronunciation. The problem with this system comes when the text has “Adonai yod-hey-vav-hey”, as occurs for example at Genesis 15:2.  Since “Adonai Adonai” would make it sound like the same word appears twice, a different name for God is employed, and it is pronounced “Adonai Elohim”.  In these places, the voweled text has the Elohim vowels to remind the reader.

At the other extreme are words that are considered too uncouth for our delicate ears.  At Deuteronomy 28:27, the written text says “afolim”, meaning hemorrhoids.  Apparently, this word at one time had some dreadfully indelicate connotation.  Instead, the word “t’chorim” is read, which also means hemorrhoids.  (The same substitution is done several times in 1 Samuel).  Three verses later another euphemism is substituted.  The text word is “yishgalena”, meaning “he will violate her”, but instead one is to read “yishkavena”, meaning “he will lie with her”.

Then there are those spelling varieties mentioned in the previous essay.  When they  affect the meaning of the term, the word is read according to its intended meaning.  Thus, when hey-vav-aleph (which normally means “he” and is pronounced “hoo”) clearly is intended to mean “she”, then it is read, not as “hoo” but as “hee”, the word for she.  Thus, hey-vav-aleph is read as if it were hey-yod-aleph.  The female form of youth is nun-ayin-resh-hey, but in all but one place, the final letter is missing.  If read in this truncated form, then it would be pronounced na-ar, which is the masculine form for youth.  Instead, it is pronounced as if the hey were really there --- as na-a-rah.  Jacob’s son yod-sin-sin-khof-resh is always pronounced as if it had only one sin, i.e. yee-sah-khar.  What you see in the text is not what you get.

Of course, that’s assuming you can hear it at all. Most of Deuteronomy 28, and much of Leviticus 26 is taken up with a series of curses.  Many are so ghastly  --- and vivid --- that a custom arose to read them very quickly and in a decidedly subdued tone.  In fact, people didn’t even want this aliyah.  So in the olden days, it would be given to the poor.  Or the Rabbi.

Next:  Make it big, make it small, stretch it out, or even change the words: Oddities in the Sefer Torah.