7701 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20012

The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish | Oddities, Part 5

The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish, In Eight Parts

By Mark L. Berch

In Numbers 11  Moses begins his complaint about the unwanted burden of leadership by asking, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant?” It concludes in verse 15, where the original text, according to tradition, states, “If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg you, and let me see no more of your wretchedness.”  Well!  While many commentators have noted that God’s actions in the desert occasionally seem, by human understanding, a smidgen less than divine, this was a bit much.  The original text was deemed too disrespectful (to God, presumably, although it could be equally argued that it was too disrespectful to Moses to have him talk this way).  So the scholars changed to the text to its current form, viz “....see no more of my wretchedness”.  Yes, Moses takes the rap.

This wasn’t the only place where tradition alleges that the text was deliberately altered.  Genesis 18:1 begins by saying that the Lord appeared to Abraham by the Terebinths of Mamre while he, Abraham “was sitting at the entrance to the tent.”  A number of events are revealed, but at  18:22, the text says, “Abraham remained standing before the Lord.”  Huh?  Wasn’t he sitting? Tradition records that verse 22 had been changed to stand Abraham up.  It would not do for the Lord to stand and Abraham to sit.  The third place was Numbers 12:12, where Aaron pleads to Moses to have Miriam’s leprosy lifted: “Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from our mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”  This was apparently deemed  too disrespectful of  Jocheved, the aforementioned mother, so it was altered to the impersonal “his mother’s womb”.  These changes, and 15 others in Prophets and the Writings, are called Tikunay Sofrim, “scribal corrections.”  Of course, that was then, this is now.  Just try to make a change (say, in the verse about homosexuality) nowadays, and you’ll be told that its unthinkable.  But it seems that it wasn’t, in days of old.

A somewhat related business is the gap in the middle of Genesis 35:22.  In one of the more sordid episodes in Torah, Reuben, Jacob’s eldest, has intercourse with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah.  The account has “and Israel heard” and then a big gap before the verse continues with another matter.  The gap is there to let us know that the ending to the story has been omitted.  The notes are arranged so that one reads from verse 22 to verse 23 without a break, so as to rush through the matter.  And the Mishnah states that when the verse is read, it is not to be translated.

A more creative use of gaps occurs for the Song of the Sea at Exodus 15:1-19.  Even numbered lines have three sections, separated by two gaps.  Odd numbered lines (except the first) have two sections, with a large gap in the middle.  The overall visual effect is a brick wall with staggered bricks, reminding one of the walls through which the Hebrews passed.  The Song of Moses (Deut. 32:1-43) has an open space in the middle of each of its 70 lines, and special spacing is also used for both versions of the Ten Commandments.  Spaces are also used between verses to signal the beginning of “open” and “closed” sections of the Torah, and a gap of 4 lines is used to separate each book.

There are also a slew of large letters in the Bible.  Probably the best known of these are the a’yin and the daled in the Shema at Deut. 6:4.  Its even printed that way at Siddur Sam Shalom on Page 346.  The large dalet keeps the word from being read as “Akher” (“another”, implying more than one).  A’yin Dalet spells witness, but who knows if that is relevant.  A few seem obvious --- the first letter in Torah is an oversized Bet (with a unique crown), and the middle vav is oversized, but in other cases it may well have been the initiative of an individual scribe.  In fact, while the official Masoretic text lists 16 in the Torah, there was never full agreement on these, and some modern printed texts don’t include them all.  And some would add a 17th, the sin in “eres” at Deut. 3:11.  Also, the letter peh, wherever it appears, looks larger than the others as such a huge piece of it lies conspicuously below the line.

There are also nine small letters.  Assorted, and sometimes multiple explanations are presented for these.  For example, the first word of Leviticus ends with a small aleph.  One explanation is that when the text was originally written without spaces between words, this aleph was omitted to save space, because the next word started with an aleph, which could then do double duty.  When the words were separated, the added aleph was made small to indicate that it was added.  A second explanation is that Moses wanted the aleph omitted, so that it begins with va-yikar, meaning to meet by accident, but God wanted it to to be deliberate.  Moses agreed to this, and the small aleph is there to mark the agreement.  A fanciful explanation if there ever was one.

There is one deliberately defective letter:  the vav in “shalom”  at Numbers 25:12, which has a break in its vertical line.  God had promised Phineas the “covenant of peace” as a reward for his murder of the flagrantly immoral  Zimri (and Kozbi).  The Masoretes, who finalized the text, apparently wanted to make a point about peace and violence being incompatible.  Or so the story goes.

And speaking of vavs, almost every column in a Torah scroll begins with one.  Exodus 27:10 says that the  Tabernacle curtains, supported by 20 pillars, called “amudim” were to be hung by silver hooks, called “vav” (the Hebrew singular).  These were thus called “vavim ha-amudim,” hooks of the posts.  Since “Amudim” also means columns of text, the scribes treated this as an instruction that each column should be hung, or started with, a vav!  There are, however, six special columns that are supposed to begin with specially designated words, for arcane reasons having to do with the importance of the words and a phrase spelled by their first letters.

Another curiosity is a pair of inverted nuns.  These bracket Numbers 10:35-36.  The Talmudic explanation is that these tells us that these two verses don’t really belong there, but rather belong after Numbers 2:17.  Rabbi Judah the Price says that these two verses actually constitute an entire Book of the Bible, with the earlier and later material in Numbers being two more, for a total of seven.  The nuns, even though they are not read, are considered part of What-God-Said, and must be present in a  kosher Torah.

Even more mysterious are the dots, sometimes called puncta extraordinaire.  These vary considerably, and they are at 10 locations in the Sefer Torah.  Sometimes a single dot appears.  But six dots appear over “yishakayhu” (“and he [Esau] kissed him [Jacob]”).  Supposedly, this flags the fact that the Rabbis, who never missed a chance to badmouth Esau (he was used as a surrogate for criticizing Rome) considered the kiss to be insincere and intended originally to be a bite.  At Deut. 29:28, eleven dots extend over three words.  Dots appear to flag words that the Masoretes had some doubts were correct, or had some particular  moral lesson, or where there was clearly some problem or contradiction involved.  While these dots are not considered God-given, a kosher Torah must have them anyway.  They are as close as the Sefer Torah comes to including commentary on itself.

Next: Accessorizing the Torah with its accouterments