The Torah Scroll

By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)



I. Introduction[1]


In this study I would like to study the unusual letters found in the Tanach.


What is The Torah?


Torah literally means “instruction”. The Torah is THE central ‘teaching’ for Jews. The Torah consists of the ‘Five Books of  Moshe’s:















A Torah scroll is a scroll that contains these five books of  Moshe:


torah scroll sefard

Sefardi Torah Scrolls


torah scroll

Ashkenaz Torah Scroll


The Torah scrolls found in the ark of the local Jewish synagogue are a powerfull testimony to the accuracy and integrity of The Word of HaShem, as delivered to Moshe ( Moshe).


Torah Ark


A Torah scroll is written on scored cow hide with special black ink and quill. Each page is then sewn to the previous page using gut from a kosher animal.


However, it is not the materials which are amazing, but the writing itself. This amazing text is easily the most accurate in the world. It is also contains an amazing amount of coded information beyond the text itself.


The Script By Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner[2]


The Sages teach in Sanhedrin 21b that, “Ezra the Scribe, had he lived then, would have been worthy of receiving the Torah. Instead, he was responsible for changing the Hebrew script." Concerning this the Maharal wrote[3] that, “this is something of exalted wisdom, that the Torah script was changed specifically by Ezra the Scribe.” This matter contains sublime Torah secrets.


We know that at the time of Ezra, the style of Hebrew script was changed from the “Ivri script” to the “Ashuri script”. Note: There are two types of Hebrew script, the ancient Ivri script found on ancient coins and writings, or the “Ashuri script” which has been used since the time of Ezra in Sifrei Torah and sacred texts, and has become the standard format for all Hebrew writing.


The Maharal writes[4] that changing the Hebrew script was not like a prohibition that was subsequently permitted, it is like eating meat for pleasure which was at first prohibited, but for a limited time only. A similar approach was taken regarding the Hebrew script. At the time of revelation, the Torah was written in the “Ivri script”, but they were immediately informed that this script would eventually be changed. The Maharal explains that the origin of Israel (i.e. Abraham) was on ‘the other side of the river’, which is the reason we are called Ivrim, Hebrews. So long as Israel was in the mode of being founded, it employed the “Ivri script”, however when they experienced exile for the first time, Israel lost its status of being in a ‘beginning state’. It was then that the script was changed (this is explained in greater detail in Maharal’s Sefer HaTiferet.)


This is the place where we can identify the relationship of shared destiny between Israel and the Torah even in their normal period of ingathering. So long as Israel lived on their land, the Holy Scriptures were continuously being written. The continued writing of the Holy Scriptures is referred to with the words, “that I wrote” {Shemos 24:12) as is explicitly stated in the Torah. This writing was in “Ivri script” which is associated with the “beginning mode”, the mode of Israel at that time. Here we find a shared destiny between Israel and its Torah in that the script of Torah writing at the time they first lived in Eretz Israel was written in the style and form of the time of Israel’s founding.


The Letters


A Torah scroll contains numerous letters which are non-standard in terms of size, placement, and orientation. These unusual characters are exactly the same from one Torah croll to the next. These are not mistakes, but rather, they contain vast amounts of information that is fereted out by our Sages and used to convey The Word of HaShem to His treasured people.


The letters of the Torah come in three sizes: large, small, and the standard letters with which most of the Torah is written. A large Alef is known as an Alef Rabbasi, a small Alef as an Alef Zeira. A medium-sized Alef is called an Alef Regila (a regular Alef).


There are about 100 abnormal letters in the Torah, as the Talmud teaches.


Men. 29b

Ber. 4a; Naz. 23a; Hot. 10b.

Meg. 16b


The Encyclopedia Judaica tells us that there are 17 places in the Torah where a letter is written extra-large or extra-small: the scribal terminology is majuscule and miniscule. There are six miniscules and eleven majuscules. For example, the first letter in the Torah, the beth in the word Bereshit, is a majuscule (this is probably the origin of the illuminated capital of medieval manuscripts). The most famous majuscules are certainly the ones from the Shema in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:4. In this case, the letters are large to avoid confusion: a large ayin in the word shema to avoid confusion with aleph: ‘perhaps O Israel.’ The large dalet to avoid confusion with resh: ‘the Lord is another’.




Vellish - Script sample


Vellish, is the script generally used by Sephardi Jews.


Ari - Script sample


Ari is the script generally used by Jews of Chassidic descent or influence.


Bais Yoseph - Script sample


Beit Yoseph is the script generally used by Ashkenazi Jews.


Quills and Ink


The scribe makes quills for writing a Sefer Torah. The feathers must come from a kosher bird, and the goose is the bird of choice for many scribes. The scribe carefully and patiently carves a point in the end of the feather and uses many quills in the course of writing one Sefer Torah. The scribe also prepares ink for writing the Sefer Torah by combining powdered gall nuts, copper sulfate crystals, gum arabic, and water, preparing only a small amount at a time, so that the ink will always be fresh. Fresh ink is a deep black, and only this is acceptable for writing a Sefer Torah.


Letters in the Torah






























































Letters and Words in the Torah





Bereshit (Genesis)



Shemot (Exodus)



Vayikra (Leviticus)



Bamidbar (Numbers)



Devarim (Deuteronomy)











Hebrew Word.


Hebrew Letter.

Gen. 1:1




Gen. 30:42



final pe

Gen. 34:31




Gen. 50:23


third generation

final mem

Ex. 2:2




Ex. 34:7




Ex. 34:14




Lev. 11:30




Lev. 11:42




Lev. 13:33




Num. 13:31




Num. 14:17


be great


Num. 24:5




Num. 27:5



final nun

Deut. 6:4




Deut. 6:4




Deut. 18:13




Deut. 29:28


cast them


Deut. 32:4




Deut. 32:6

vuvhk v


first he

Josh. 14:11



first kaf

Isa. 56:10




Mal. 3:22




Ps. 77:8




Ps 80:15




Ps. 84:4




Prov 1:1




Job 9:34




Song 1:1




Ruth. 3:13




Eccl. 7:1




Eccl. 7:13




Esth 1:6




Esth. 9:9




Esth. 9:29



first taw

Dan. 11:20



second pe

I Chron. 1:1





The large letters are used mainly to call attention to certain Talmudic and midrashic homilies and citations, or as guards against errors. References to them in Masseket Soferim is read substantially as follows:


The letters of the first word of Genesis, “Bereshit” (In the beginning), must be spaced (“stretched”; according to the Masorah, only the “bet” is large).


Bereshit (Genesis) 1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.


,tu ohnav ,t ohvkt trc ,hatrc



* * *


Bereshit (Genesis) 30:42 But when the cattle were feeble, he put [them] not in: so the feebler were Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s.


ohpygv vhvu ohah tk itmv ;hygvcu

:ceghk ohraevu ickk


* * *


Bereshit (Genesis) 34:31 And they said, Should he deal with our sister as with an harlot?


 :ub,ujt-,t vagh vbuzfv rnthu


* * *


Bereshit (Genesis) 50:23 And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third [generation]: the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were brought up upon Joseph’s knees.


hbc od ohaka hbc ohrptk ;xuh trhu

:;xuh hfrc-kg uskh vabn-ic rhfn


* * *


Shemot (Exodus) 2:2 And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he [was a] goodly [child], she hid him three months.


u,t tr,u ic sk,u vatv rv,u

:ohjrh vaka uvbpm,u tuv cuy-hf


* * *


Shemot (Exodus) 34:7 Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear [the guilty]; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth [generation].


vtyju gapu iug tab ohpktk sxj rmb

ohbc’kg ,uct iug q sep vebh tk vebu

:ohgcr-kgu ohaka-kg ohbc hbc-kgu


* * *


Shemot (Exodus) 34:14 For thou shalt worship no other god: for HaShem, whose name [is] Jealous, [is] a jealous God:


tbe vuvh hf rjt ktk vuj,a, tk hf

:tuv tbe kt una


* * *


Kiddushin 30a The early [scholars] were called Soferim[5] because they used to count all the letters of the Torah.[6] Thus, they said, the waw in gahon[7] marks half the letters of the Torah; darosh darash,[8] half the words; we-hithggalah,[9] half the verses. The boar out of the wood [mi-ya’ar] doth ravage it:[10] the ‘ayin of ya’ar marks half of the Psalms.[11] But he, being full of compassion, forgiveth their iniquity,[12] half of the verses.


Vayikra (Leviticus) 11:30 And the ferret, and the chameleon, and the lizard, and the snail, and the mole.


The u “vuv” in the word “gachon”, belly, must be raised because it is the middle central letter of the Torah. It is one of the eleven majuscules in the Torah.


Vayikra (Leviticus) 11:42 Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon [all] four, or whatsoever hath more feet among all creeping things that creep upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they [are] an abomination.


gcrt-kgLlkuv q|kfu iujd-kgLlkuv kf

.rav .rav-kfk ohkdr vcrn-kf sg

:ov .ea-hf oukft, tk .rtv-kg


The Psalms also have a corresponding middle letter:

יְכַרְסְמֶנָּה חֲזִיר מִיָּעַר;    וְזִיז שָׂדַי יִרְעֶנָּה  יד


Tehillim (Psalms) 80:14 The boar out of the wood doth ravage it, that which moveth in the field feedeth on it.


* * *


The word “va-yishchat” (And he slew) must be spaced, as it is the beginning of the middle verse of the Torah (the Masorah designates the dividing verse as in Vayikra 8:8, but does not indicate that any change is to be introduced in the form or spacing of the letters).


Vayikra (Leviticus) 8:23 And he slew [it]; and  Moshe took of the blood of it, and put [it] upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot.


i,hu unsn van jehu q|yjahu

ivc-kgu ,hbnhv irvt-iztLlub,’kg

:,hbnhv ukdr ivc-kgu ,hbnhv ush




Shema’” (hear; Shemot 6:4) must be placed at the beginning of the line, and all its letters must be spaced; “echad” (one), the last word of the same verse, must be placed at the end of the line (the Masorah has the “‘ayin” of “Shema’” and the “dalet” of “echad” large).


Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:4 Hear, O Israel: HaShem is our God, HaShem is One:


:sjt q vuvh ubhvkt vuvh ktrah gna


The letters sg Ayin Dalet can be read “ade” which means “to bear witness.” In reading the “Shemaone is in effect testifying that God exists. Note that Ya’akov (Jacob) and Esau make a treaty of peace near a mound of stones called “gal-ade”, literally a mound (gal) of testimony (ade). (Genesis 31:46-48)


Alternatively, the letters sg Ayin Dalet can be read “ahd”, which means “until”. In other words, no matter one’s belief in HaShem, it can never be perfect, never absolutely absolute. One can come “until” the Lord, but never quite reach Him. Note the text describing repentance - “and you shall return until (ad) the Lord your HaShem,” (Devarim 30:2) as no one can ever return fully to HaShem.


Finally, the letter Ayin Dalet can be read ode, meaning “still.” This is perhaps to accentuate that against all odds, Jews throughout history in the darkest of times still declared belief in HaShem. Note the use of the word “ode” when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers when he asked, “ha’ode avi hai, is my father still alive?” (Bereshit 45:3) In amazement Yosef rhetorically was saying, ‘having endured so much, is father still alive?’


The “lamed” in the word “wa-yashlikem” (and he cast them) must be large (“long” = “‘aruk”).


Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:28 And HaShem rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and He cast them into another land, as [it is] this day.


vnjcu ;tc o,nst kgn vuvh oa,hu

,rjt .rt-kt ofkahu kusd ;mecu

:vzv ouhf


The letter v in vuvhk v (“HaShem”) must be spaced more than any other “he,” as “ha” is here a separate word (comp. Yer. Meg. 1.: “The ‘he’ must be below the shoulder of the ‘lamed’”; also Ex. R. 24: “The ‘he’ is written below the ‘lamed.’” The Masorah has a large “he” as indicating the beginning of a separate word).


Devarim (Deuteronomy) 32:6 Do ye thus requite HaShem, O foolish people and unwise? [is] not he thy father [that] hath bought thee? hath he not made thee, and established thee?


ofj tku kcb og ,tz-uknd, vuvhk v

:lbbfhuŠlag tuv lbe lhct tuv-tukv



Ruth 3:13 Tarry this night, and it shall be in the morning, that if he will perform unto thee the part of a kinsman, well; let him do the kinsman’s part; but if he be not willing to do the part of a kinsman to thee, then will I do the part of a kinsman to thee, as HaShem liveth; lie down until the morning.’



This righteous man’s words, הַלַּיְלָה ליני, “stay this night,” signify that only this night would Ruth stay alone, without a husband; the next morning she would be redeemed. Similarly, many generations later, the children of Israel would endure the night of exile, when they would be like a woman separated from her husband, with whom she will be re­united in the morning of her redemption. This is hinted at by rrt, which is composed of the end letters of the “four exiles”; Babylon (בב״ל), Media (מד״י), Greece (יו״ן), and Rome (רומ״י).


In this regard the letter nun (נ, numerically equivalent to 50), por­tends that the future exile would begin in the fiftieth generation, at the time of Nebuchadnezzar. Alternatively, the enlarged letter nun in certain texts alludes to the Messiah (a scion of Ruth), one of whose names was Yenon, ינון. [Thus it says, “Yenon is his name” (Psalms 72:17).][13]





Hebrew Word.


Hebrew Letter.

Gen. 2: 4




Gen 32:2




Gen. 27:46




Ex. 32: 25




Lev. 1:1




Lev. 6:2




Num. 25:11




Deut. 9:24



first mem

Deut. 32:18




II Sam. 21:19




II Kings 17:31




Isa. 44:14


ash (tree)

final nun

Jer. 14:2




Jer. 39:13



final nun

Nah 1:3




Ps. 24:5




Prov. 16:28



final nun

Prov. 28:17




Prov. 30:15




Job. 7:5




Job. 16:14



final tzade

Lam. 1:12




Lam 2:9




Lam. 3:35




Esth 9:7




Esth. 9:7




Esth 9:9




Dan. 6:20


very early

first pe


The name Abraham is alluded to already in the Genesis account of creation. Genesis includes two accounts of creation. The first runs from chapter 1 verse 1 to chapter 2 verse 3 and the second begins with chapter 2 verse 4.


Bereshit (Genesis) 2:4 These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created (בהבראם), in the day that HaShem God made earth and heaven.


However, sometimes chapter 2 verse 4 is considered the final verse of the first account of creation. This verse reads: “These are the chronicles of the heavens and the earth when they were created, on the day that God made earth and heavens.” In the original Hebrew, the words “when they were created,” are a single word: בהבראם . This is a very special word because it is the first time that a typographically minor letter appears in the text of the Torah: the second letter of this word, the hei (ה ) is this letter. Thus, in the Torah scroll this word is written something like this: בהבראם . But, this word is also special because when permuted it spells באברהם , which means “with Abraham.” The sages learn from this that all of creation was created in the merit of Abraham.

The h of the word ha,, teshi, (thou art unmindful; Devarim 32:18) must be smaller than any other “yod “ in the Scriptures.


Devarim (Deuteronomy) 32:18 Of the Rock [that] begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee.


lkkjn kt jfa,u ha, lskh rum jh


The h of ksdh, yigdal, (be great) must be larger than any other “yod” in the Torah (Yal., Num. 743, 945).


Bamidbar (Numbers) 14:17 And now, I beseech thee, let the power of HaShem be great, according as thou hast spoken, saying,


,rcs ratf hbst jf tb-ksdh v,gu



The last word in the Torah, “Israel,” must be spaced and the “lamed” made higher than in any other place where this letter occurs (the Masorah has no changes).


* * *


“And it was, the life of Sarah, 127 years, the years of the life of Sarah”. The end of the next verse says that Avraham Aveinu came to eulogize Sarah Imeinu, v’livkosah- and cry over losing her. V’livkosah is inscribed with a small letter kaf. The commentary Ba’al Haturim says the little letter is telling us Avraham cried only a little because Sarah was an elderly woman.


Hakham Shimshon Rafael Hirsch says that the word šv,fcku, and to bewail her, is written with a small f to suggest that although Avraham’s grief was infinite, the full measure of his pain was concealed in his heart and the privacy of his home.


Bereshit (Genesis) 23:1-2 And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kirjath-arba; the same [is] Hebron in the land of Canaan: and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.


iurcj tuv gcrt ,hrec vra ,n,u c

vrak spxk ovrct tchu igbf .rtc


* * *


The word “vayikar” (“Vayikra” without an “Alef”) means “casually calling.” The word “Vayikra” (“Vayikra” with a “Alef”) means “to call with love.”


Vayikra (Leviticus) 1:1 And HaShem called unto  Moshe, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying,


uhkt vuvh rcshu van-kt trehu t

:rntk sgun kvtn


Look at the opening word of the Book of Leviticus and you will see that the final letter of this word is written smaller than all the rest. The word is Vayikrah, “and He called”. The letter in question is the Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet and kabbalistic symbol for the Ineffable God.


In the verse ‘VaYikra el Moshe,’ the Alef is small, alluding to Moshe Rabbeinu’s humility. Although Moshe was well aware of his extraordinary talents and abilities, he did not take pride in them or consider himself great. It states in the Torah, ‘And the man Moshe was very humble.’ According to Moshe’s way of thinking, had someone else been blessed with the same abilities, he would have certainly utilized them better.”


The Book of Leviticus opens with the verse “And the Lord summoned  Moshe,” the first word being the Hebrew “Vayikra,” which means, “and He summoned or “called out to;” it is fascinating that a small “aleph” is the masoretic, traditional way of writing the Hebrew VYKRA, so that the text actually states “Vayiker, and He chanced upon, “ as if by accident. Rashi comments: “The word VaYiKRA precedes all (Divine) commandments and statements, which is a term of endearment used by the heavenly angels...; however, HaShem appeared to the prophets of the idolatrous nations of the world with a temporary and impure expression, as it is written ‘And He chanced upon (Va Yiker) Balaam’”. Apparently, when  Moshe was writing the Torah dictated by HaShem, he was too humble to accept for himself the more exalted and even angelic Divine charge of VaYiKRA; therefore, he wrote the less complimentary VaYiker relating to himself, retaining his faithfulness to HaShem’s actual word VaYiKRA (“And He Summoned”) by appending a small aleph to the word VaYiKR.


The midrash goes one step further. It poignantly, if albeit naively, pictures the heavenly scene of Moshe, having completed his writing of the Five Books, being left with a small portion of unused Divine ink; after all, the Almighty had dictated VaYiKRA and  Moshe had only written VyiKR A, rendering the ink which should have been used for the regular size aleph as surplus. The midrash concludes that the Almighty Himself, as it were, took that extra ink and lovingly placed it on Moshe’s forehead; that is what gave rise to Moshe “rays of splendor.”


This is why it says, “And He called to Moshe” the word Vayikra (and He called) being written with a small letter Alef. This is to imply that HaShem, who is the Aluf (commander) of the universe, is concealed within every Jewish soul, and calls out to it to return. These are the thoughts of teshuva that come to one. However, he does not understand that this is HaShem, blessed be He calling to him.


The Triennial Cycle


During Temple times, the reading of the Torah was completed, by every congregation, in three and a half years. Today most congregations complete the reading of the Torah on one year.


In Israel, during Temple days, the reading of the Torah was completed once in three and a half years (see Triennial Cycle) and therefore the Torah was divided into 154 (or, according to another version, 167) weekly portions called sedarim. In Babylonia, during Temple days, the full cycle of the reading of the Torah was completed in one year, so that the Torah was divided into 54 parashiyot, weekly portions and that division is followed today, in continuance of the Babylonian tradition.


The division of the body of the text into sections is an ancient one, and unlike the above-mentioned division into sedarim and parashiyot, is connected with the very copying of the text whether in a scroll or a codex. These sections are of two kinds, with the type of space between them varying:


(1) A parasha petuhah (open parasha) which starts at the beginning of a line, the preceding line being left partly or wholly blank (in some printed editions this is indicated by p);


(2) A parashah setumah (closed parasha) which begins at a point other than the start of a line, whether the preceding parasha ended in the preceding line (at its end or not) or whether it ends in the same one, in which case a space of approximately nine letters is left between the two parashiyot (in some printed editions this is noted as s).


This ancient division is attested to in the Babylonian Talmud (Shab. 103b): “a parasha petuha should not be made setumah, a setumah should not be made petuhah.” Sifra to Lev. 1:1; 1:9 asks: “And what purpose did the sections serve? To give Moshe an interval to reflect between parashah and parasha and between issue and issue.” Despite their antiquity different traditions developed even on the matter of the parashiyot, that is, different customs, as to the place and number of each type. In printed editions today there is a great degree of uniformity in the Torah due mainly to the legal fixing of this issue and that of the form of the songs by Maimonides following Ben-Asher (Yad, Sefer Torah 8:4).


* * *


Mem is the 13th letter of the alephbet. It appears in two forms. Anywhere in a word except at the end it is square shaped with an opening in the lower left corner and yod like appendage in the upper left corner - מ. At the end of a word it appears as a closed square shape with the same yod like appendage - ם called a mem sofit.


There is one exception in the Torah where the final mem (mem sofit) is used in the middle of a word. The word and verse are found in Isaiah 9:6. There it is written: “lemarbeh hamisrah, his rule will be increased”. The mem in lemarbeh is a final mem.


The world of Mashiach, when HaShem will “annihilate death forever” and “banish the spirit of impurity from the world” is represented by the letter “final mem,” whose form is that of a closed square ם (as alluded to in the verse, “For the increase of the realm and for peace without end” (Isaiah 9:6), in which the letter mem uncharacteristically appears in its closed form in the middle of a word). In this future world of divine perfection, the gap between spirit and matter will be closed and the negative “fourth side” will be transformed into a positive force


o - The closed, Final Mem, represents the era of Mashiach as explained in Kabbalah.


Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 9:6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.


oukaku vranv[(vcrnk) vcrok u

u,fknn-kgu sus txf-kg .e-iht

vesmcu ypanc vsgxkušv,t ihfvk

 ,utcm vuvh ,tbe okug-sgu v,gn



* * *


We find that the intention of having a letter in the Torah appearing diminished is to also interpret the word without that letter, such as Bereshit 23:2, where the word “v’liv*k*osoh” appears with a small Kof and is interpreted as “u’l’vitoh,” - and for her daughter (See Rashi ad loc).


* * *


“In the beginning of Divrei HaYamim [the Book of Chronicles] Adam HaRishon’s name is written with a large Alef, because Adam considered himself to be very important. After all, none other than HaShem Himself had created him! Adam HaRishon was aware of his own significance, which later led to the sin of the Eitz HaDaat [Tree of Knowledge].


* * *


The inverted “nun” () in nine passages (Num. x. 35, 36; Ps. cvii. 23-28, 40).


The Book of Numbers is like the voyage of the S. S. Titanic: it begins with the people in a festive mood, neatly arranged by camps around their sacred center, the Sanctuary; there are a few darker hints, but these are so subtle as to go almost unnoticed. The travelers expect a calm and pleasant journey, and to arrive at their destination quickly; suddenly, in mid-voyage they strike an iceberg and everything changes. In the Torah, this iceberg takes the concrete form of a pair of inverted Hebrew letters, the “nun”s framing Num 10:35-36, after which everything starts to go wrong. The ship may not sink, but an entire generation will die in the desert and fail to complete their journey; here, the catastrophes are not natural, but man-made: a collective failure of character In a very real sense, everything must start anew after these events.



* * *


There are about 100 abnormal letters in the Masoretic text of the Bible—many of them in the Pentateuch—which were always copied by the scribes, and appear also in the printed editions. Among these letters are: the ו; bisected vav, in the word ouka (“peace”; Num. xxv. 12); the final “mem” in the word vcrok (“increase”; Isa. ix. 6 [A. V. 7]); the inverted “nun” () in nine passages (Num. x. 35, 36; Ps. cvii. 23-28, 40); and the Suspended Letters. The principal division of these abnormal letters is into small (“ze’ira”) and large (“rabbati”) letters, as indicated in the lists which are given below. The former appear to belong to an older Masorah than that which provides for the large letters, and should be classed with the “kere” and “ketib.”


References in Talmud and Midrash.


The references in Talmud and Midrash which are probably the bases of these abnormalities are as follows: (1) Citing “For in Y H the Lord created the worlds” (Isa. xxvi. 4, Hebr.), R. Judah b. Ila’i said: “By the letters ‘yod’ [Y] and ‘he’ [H] this world and the world to come were created—the former by the ‘he,’ as it is written otrcvc [“when they were created,” Gen. ii. 4]” (Men. 29b); hence the letter “he” is small here, indicating this world. (2) Citing “And when she saw him that he was a goodly child” (cuy; Ex. ii. 2), R. Meïr said: “‘Ṭob’ [“good”] was his name” (Ex. R. i.; Yalḳ., Ex. 166). (3) “And the Lord called unto  Moshe” (trehu; Lev. i. 1); “va-yikra” is written here with a small “alef,” to emphasize its contrast with “va-yikar” in the verse “God met Balaam” (rehu; Num. xxiii. 4); the former indicates a familiar call used by loved ones, but the latter refers to an accidental meeting, difference being thus expressed between the call of HaShem to a Jewish prophet ( Moshe) and His call to a non-Jewish prophet (Balaam; Lev. R. i.). (4) “And Caleb stilled the people” (xvhu; Num. xiii. 30). He used diplomacy in quieting them, as he feared they might not heed his advice (see Sotah 35a; Yalk., Num. 743); and the use of the large טsymbolically denotes the way in which Caleb quieted the people. (5) “Hear, O Israel . . . one God” (Deut. vi. 4). Whosoever prolongs the word “echad” [one] in reciting the “Shema’” prayer, his days and years shall be prolonged—especially if he prolongs the letter “dalet” (Ber. 13b). The emphasis on the “dalet” (ד) is intended to distinguish it from the “resh” (ר), which resembles it, and which would change the reading to “acher” (another)—in this case a blasphemous expression. Proverbs (hkan) begins with a large “mem”—which has the numerical value of forty—because Solomon, like  Moshe, fasted forty days before penetrating to the secret of the Torah. According to another explanation, the “mem” is the center of the alphabet, as the heart is the center of the body, the fountain of all wisdom, as revealed in Solomon’s Proverbs (Yalk., Prov. 929). The large “vav” in “Vayezatha” (t,zhu; Esth.ix. 9) is accounted for by the fact that all of Haman’s ten children were hanged on one large cross resembling the “vav” (ו; Yalḳ., Prov. 1059). The “zayin” in the same name is small, probably to indicate that Vayezatha was the youngest son.


Other large letters were intended to guard against possible errors; for instance, in the passage “when the cattle were feeble” (;hygvcu; Gen. xxx. 42) final “pe” (;) is written large in order that it may not be mistaken for a final “nun” (ן) and the word be read ihygvcu (comp. uhbhng in Job xxi. 24). The Septuagint translation, based on the second version, is “whenever the cattle happened to bring forth.”


The large letters in the words “ha-ke-zonah” (Gen. xxxiv. 31), “ha-la-Yhwh” (Deut. xxxii. 6), and “ha-le-’olamim” (Ps. lxxvii. 8) are probably meant to divide the root from the two preformatives. Some books begin with large letters, e.g., Genesis, Proverbs, and Chronicles; perhaps originally these were divided into separate compilations, each beginning with a large letter. The large “mem” in “ma chobu” (Num. xxiv. 5) is probably meant to mark the beginning of the column as designated by the Masorah.


Jacob b. Asher, author of the “Churim,” gives in his annotations to the Torah various reasons—some of them far-fetched—for the small letters. He says, for instance: “The small ‘kaf’ of v,fcku, in the verse ‘Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her,’ indicates that Abraham really cried but little, since Sarah died in a ripe old age. The small ‘kof’ [=100] in h,me, in the verse ‘Rebekah said to Isaac: I am weary of life’ [Gen. xxvii. 46], indicates the height of the Temple, 100 cubits. Rebekah in her prophetic vision saw that the Temple would be destroyed, and therefore she became weary of life.”




There are four suspended or elevated (“teluyah”) letters in the Hebrew Bible: (1) the “nun” in vabn, in Judges xviii. 30; (2) the “‘ayin” in rghn, in Ps. lxxx. 13; (3) the “‘ayin” in ohgar, in Job xxxviii. 13; and (4) the “‘ayin” in ohgarn, ib. verse 15. This masorah is mentioned in the Talmud, and appears to be earlier than that of the small and large letters.


The object in suspending the letters in question is not quite clear. The Rabbis proposed to eliminate the suspended “nun” and to read “Moshe” in place of “Manasseh,” as Gershom was the son of  Moshe (I Chron. xxiii. 15); it is only, they said, for the reason that Jonathan (the son of Gershom) adopted the wickedness of Manasseh that he is called “the grandson of Manasseh” (B. B. 109b; comp. Yer. Ber. ix. 3). But the difficulty is that there is no record that  Moshe’s son Gershom had a son named Jonathan, his only known son being Shebuel (I Chron. xxvi. 24). On the other hand, Jonathan, the priest of the Danites, was evidently a young Levite (Judges xviii. 3), and not the son of Manasseh.


Commenting on the suspended “‘ayin” in the word rghn, the Midrash says that the word may also read (without the “‘ayin”) ruhn=ruthn= “from the river or the sea.” The boar or swine coming from the sea is less (another version “more”) dangerous than that from the forest (Lev. R. xiii.). This refers to the Roman government, which is compared to the swine (Gen. R. lxviii.; see also Krochmal, “Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman,” xiii.).


Regarding the suspended “‘ayin” in the word ohgar, occurring twice in Job, the Talmud eliminates the letter and reads ohar, which word has a double meaning—”rulers” and “poor”—the tyrants below who are poor and powerless above. But, it is explained, out of respect to King David the rulers in this case were not identified with the wicked; hence the spelling ohgar (Sanh. 23b; see Rashi ad loc., and Geiger, “Urschrift,” p. 258).


A more plausible explanation is that the suspended letters are similar in origin to the “kere” and “ketib.” In this case the authorities, who could not decide between two readings, whether the letter in question preceded or followed the next letter, placed it above, so that it might be read either way. Thus the original reading in Judges was probably “Jonathan, the son of Gershom in Manasseh” = vabhfc (comp. Judges vi. 15), i.e., in the land of Manasseh, whither the Danites emigrated. Another reading was “the son of  Moshe” (van ic); and the suspended “nun” makes it possible to read the word either way (“ Moshe” or “Manasseh”). Another possible explanation is that the original reading was “Mosheh,” the “nun” being introduced to suggest “Manasseh,” so as to avoid the scandal of having a grandson of  Moshe figure as the priest of an idolatrous shrine. The suspended “‘ayin” of rghn makes the second reading rhgn, “of the city,” referring to the capital Rome as alluded to in the Midrash. The word ohgar in Job, if the “shin” and “‘ayin” be transposed, reads ohagr, “storms” (the plural of agr); this change brings the verses into entire harmony with the context and in accord with the previous chapter (comp. Job xxxvii. 3, 4, 6, 11 with ib. xxxviii. 1, 9, 22, 28, 34, 35).




Decorative “crowns” which are sometimes placed on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The taga is regularly composed of three flourishes or strokes, each of which resembles a small “zayin” and is called “ziyyun” ( = “armor,” i.e., “dagger”). In the Nazarean Codicil the taga is called “tittle” (Matt. v. 18). The seven letters צ, ג, ו, נ, ט ע, ש have the crowns on the points of the upper horizontal bars. The flourishes are placed on the tops of the letters, and they are found only in the Scroll of the Law, not in the printed copies of the Torah. The tagin are a part of the Masorah. According to tradition, there existed a manual, known as “Sefer ha-Tagin,” of the tagin as they appeared on the twelve stones that Joshua set up in the Jordan, and later erected in Gilgal (Josh. iv. 9, 20). On these stones were inscribed the books of  Moshe, with the tagin in the required letters (Nachmanides on Deut. xxvii. 8). The baraita of “Sefer ha-Tagin” thus relates its history: “It was found by the high priest Eli, who delivered it to the prophet Samuel, from whom it passed to Palti the son of Laish, to Ahithophel, to the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite, to Elijah, to Elisha, to Jehoiada the priest, and to the Prophets, who buried it under the threshold of the Temple. It was removed to Babylon in the time of King Jehoiachin by the prophet Ezekiel. Ezra brought it back to Jerusalem in the time of Cyrus. Then it came into the possession of Menahem, and from him was handed down to R. Nechunya ben ha-Hanah, through whom it went to R. Eleazar ben ‘Arak, R. Joshua, R. Akiba, R. Judah, R. Miyasha (), R. Nahum ha-Lablar, and Rab.”


Referred to in the Talmud.


The Aramaic language and the Masoretic style of the “Sefer ha-Tagin” would fix the time of its author as the geonic period. But the frequent references in the Talmud to the tagin suggest the probability of the existence of “Sefer ha-Tagin” at a much earlier period. Raba said the seven letters צ, ג, ו, נ, y, g, ש must each have a taga of three daggers (Men. 29b). The letter ה likewise has a taga (ib.). The taga of the ד is also referred to (Sotah 20a). The taga of the “kof” is turned toward the “resh” (Shab. 104a; ‘Er. 13a). R. Akiba was wont to interpret every point with halakic references (‘Er. 21b). The Haggadah calls the tagin “ketarim.” “When  Moshe ascended to heaven he found the Holy One ‘crowning’ the letters” (Shab. 89a). In the Midrash, in the comment on Hezekiah’s reception of the ambassadors of Merodach-baladan, to whom he showed the “precious things” (Isa. xxxix. 2), R. Johanan says, “He showed them a dagger swallowing a dagger”; and R. Levi adds, “With these we fight our battles and conquer” (Cant. R. iii. 3; comp. Sanh. 104a; Pirke R. El. lii., end). Nachmanides (1194-1270) quotes this midrash with the reading, “Hezekiah showed them the ‘Sefer ha-Tagin’” (comment on Gen. i. 1). Maimonides evidently quotes the formula of the tagin for the phylacteries and the mezuzah scrolls from the “Sefer ha-Tagin” (see “Yad,” Tefillin, ii. 9; Mezuzah, v. 3); in his responsa “Pe’er ha-Dor” (No. 68, p. 17b, ed. Amsterdam, 1765) he says, “The marking of the tagin in the Sefer Torah is not a later custom, for the tagin are mentioned by the Talmudists as ‘the crowns on the letters.’ . . . The Torah that  Moshe wrote also contained tagin.”


The Vitry Machzor of R. Simchah (written in 1208), a disciple of Rashi, copied the “Sefer ha-Tagin” (pp. 674-683). Menahem b. Zerahiah (1365), in “Chedah la-Derek” (I. i., § 20), says, “The ‘Sefer ha-Tagin’ is veiled in mysticism.” Profiat Duran, in the introduction to “Ma’asch Efod” (ed. Friedländer, p. 12, Vienna, 1865), says of the “Sefer ha-Tagin,” “They were scrupulous in maintaining the form of the letters as revealed to  Moshe, inasmuch as they feared that a change might affect the efficacy attached to them.” To R. Eleazar of Worms (1176-1238), the author of “Rokeach” and of several cabalistic works, also is asscribed a “Sefer ha-Tagin” (Neubauer, “Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS.” No. 1566), which was, perhaps, his commentary on the text of “Sefer ha-Tagin”; he was not the author of the original book, as Zunz erroneously thought (see Zunz, “Z. G.” p. 405, and note 2), since Nachmanides, who flourished about the same time as R. Eleazar of Worms, quotes the “Sefer ha-Tagin” from the Midrash.


Kabalistic Significance.


The significance of the tagin is veiled in the mysticism of the Kabbala. Every stroke or sign is a symbol revealing, in connection with the letters and words, the great secrets and mysteries of the universe. The letters with the tagin are supposed, when combined, to form the divine names by which heaven and earth were created, and which still furnish the key to the creative power and the revelation of future events. These combinations, like the Tetragrammaton, were sometimes misused by unscrupulous scholars, especially among the Essenes. Hence, perhaps, the injunction of Hillel: “He who makes a common use of the crown [taga] of the Torah shall waste away” (Ab. iv. 7); to which is added, “because one who uses the Shem ha-Meforash has no share in the world to come” (Ab. R. N. xii., end); the words of Hillel, however, may be interpreted figuratively (Meg. 28b).


A plausible explanation of the tagin is that they are scribal flourishes, “‘ibbur soferim” (decoration of the scribes), the intention being to ornament the scroll of the Law with a “keter Torah” (crown of the Law), for which purpose the letters ו, ג, ט, ע, ש, צ, ג were chosen because they are the only letters that have the necessary bars on top to receive the tagin, excepting the letter “vav,” of which the top is very narrow, and the “yod,” whose head is turned aside and has a point (“choch”) on the bottom. The tagin of the other letters were intended probably to serve as diacritical points for distinguishing between ב and ב, ח and ח, ך and ך, ו and ו, ם and מ wherever a mistake was possible. Technically, as noted above, a taga is composed of three ziyyunin, or daggers. A line or stroke placed on a letter with a flat top is called “keren” (= “horn”), but as a rule authors are not careful to descriminate between the terms “horn” and “dagger.”




The “Sefer ha-Tagin” gives a list of the unusual occurrences of the tagin and other flourishes in the Torah, as follows (the tops of the letters being called “heads” and the shafts “legs”):


(1) alef, 7 letters each with 7 tagin;

(2) bet, 4 letters with 3;

(3) gimel, 3 letters with 4;

(4) dalet, 6 letters with 4, and 1 letter with 1;

(5) he, 360 letters with 4 horns disjoined (not penetrating inside);

(6) he, 18 letters with 1 horn and joined (penetrating inside);

(7) vav, 38 letters with raised heads and legs coiled forward;

(8) zayin, 14 letters with only one taga in the center;

(9) zayin, 9 letters without tagin, but with coiled heads;

(10) Chet, 28 letters with 3 horns, 2 backward and 1 forward;

(11) Chet, 37 letters with legs astride;

(12) Chet, 67 letters with 4;

(13) yod. 83 letters coiled like a “kaf”;

(14) kaf, 58 letters with 3;

(15) final kaf, 74 letters with 4 horns;

(16) final kaf, 3 letters with their legs coiled forward;

(17) lamed, 44 letters with long necks, and tagin lowered from the top beside the neck, forming something like a “yod” at the lower end;

(18) mem, 39 letters with 3;

(19) final mem, 130 letters with 3 tagin disjoined;

(20) nun, 50 letters with their hooks coiled backward;

(21) final nun, 16 letters with heads coiled, but without tagin;

(22) samek; 60 letters with 4 tagin disjoined;

(23) ‘ayin, 17 letters with hind heads suspended;

(24) ‘ayin, 8 letters with tails coiled backward;

(25) ‘ayin, 6 letters with heads coiled backward;

(26) pe, 83 letters with 3;

(27) pe, 191 letters without tagin, but with the mouth coiled inside;

(28) final pe, 11 letters with 3;

(29) final pe, 3 letters with mouth coiled inside;

(30) Tzade, 70 letters with 5;

(31) Tzade, 2 letters without tagin (all the rest have 3 tagin);

(32) final Tzade, 8 letters with 5;

(33) Kof, 181 letters with 3 tagin disjoined;

(34) Kof, 2 letters without tagin, but with legs coiled backward;

(35) resh, 150 letters with 2 horns;

(36) shin, 52 letters with 7 horns;

(37) taw, 22 letters with higher heads than are usual.




There are some variations of this list in the Vitry Machzor, in the “Badde ha-Aron” of R. Shem-Ṭob (13th cent.), and in Ginsburg’s “Massoretico-Critical Text of the Hebrew Bible.” Maimonides (Responsa, No. 68) says, “The tagin vary in the number of daggers, some letters having one, two, three, or as many as seven. . . . Owing to the lapse of time and the exilic troubles there were so many variations in this Masorah that the authorities considered the advisability of excluding all tagin. But since the validity of the scroll does not depend on the tagin, the Rabbis did not disturb them.” This probably accounts for the fact that only the tagin on the letters צ, ג, ו, ג, ט, ע, ש have been retained; those on all the other letters have been omitted in the scrolls of the Law used during the last three or four centuries (see R. Judah Minz, Responsa, No. 15; Shulkan ‘Aruk, Orach Chayyim, 36, 3).




The isolated letters (Tvrzvnm  TvyTva) are the nine signs which appear between verses—in the Torah before and after the section of Nrah      Asnb    yhyv (Num. 10:35–36), and seven in Psalms, chapter 107. (There are differences of opinion as to their exact place and number.) Rather than being referred to by the name TvyTva (letters), they are already called Tvynmys (signs) in a baraita (about the Torah—Shab. 115b: ARN 34, 4; about Psalms-RH 17b). Their form was not fixed in the ancient sources and the scribes were quite liberal in the manner in which they noted them. There is early evidence that these simaniyyot were nothing but simple dots. This is the impression given by Sifrei Numbers, ch. 84 (ed. Horovitz, p. 80), already in the name of R. Simeon (second century C.E.). As time passed, these signs assumed various shapes and changed names accordingly. In tractate Soferim (prior to the eighth century) 6: 1, it is called, according to the version of various manuscripts, rupha (“horn”)—perhaps the sign really resembled a shofar, “and it appears indeed in the section on travels ( gobc hvhu )”—or dvpyS (spit), which is reminiscent of the sign of the abeloj (=spit). In Dikdukei ha-Te’amim (ch. 2) the term Tvrzvnm          TvyTva is found, and according to Dunash b. Labrat it is Myrznmh TvyTvah (Teshuvot al Menahem, ed. Filipowski, p. 6a). The term is neutral and does not indicate the shape of the sign, and according to the basic meaning its root indicates that it refers to letters which are separated from the consonantal text. In the manuscripts the sign developed the shape of a reversed nun. It is not known whether all of it was reversed (see Okhlah we-Okhlah, b179), or only its top or bottom, but there was much confusion about it in the commentaries (see Minhat Shai on Num. 10:35; Nahalat Yaakov on tractate Soferim 6:1). There were even those who wrote it into the text itself instead of regular nuns (see also Ginsburg, The Masorah, vol. 2, 259). Later the names of these signs too were interchanged with the name for the regular reversed nun (see below). Hence the otiyyot menuzzarot became Tvrzvnm NynBn (see Masorah Magna to Ps. 107:23), which was explained, following rvHa           Brzn ,”they turned backward” (Isa. 1:4), to mean reversed nun (Minhat Shai on Ps. 107:23), though there is no linguistic support for this interpretation. If the opinion already expressed in ancient sources regarding the signs in the Torah is generally accepted, that is, that the purpose of these signs is to separate the section “when the ark set forward” as if it were a book itself, there is no similar consensus of opinion concerning the signs in Psalms.




One of the parshiyot (it’s a S’TUMA) is separated from the parshiyot before and after it by more than blank space (as is usual) - namely, backwards NUNs. Consequently, this parsha is the most isolated of all parshiyot.


Bamidbar (Numbers) 10:35-36 And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that  Moshe said, Rise up, HaShem, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee. And when it rested, he said, Return, HaShem, unto the many thousands of Israel.


וַעֲנַן יְהוָה עֲלֵיהֶם, יוֹמָם, בְּנָסְעָם, מִן-הַמַּחֲנֶה.  {ס׆  {ס}

וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁהקוּמָה יְהוָה, וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ, וְיָנֻסוּ 

מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ, מִפָּנֶיךָ.

וּבְנֻחֹה, יֹאמַרשׁוּבָה יְהוָה, רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  {ס׆ {פ



Before and after these two psukim we find the letter “nun” written back to front. This is the only place in the Torah where such a phenomenon occurs, while in Tanach it appears in chapter 107 of Tehillim. What do these inverted “nuns” symbolize? Chazal teach us: “The Torah made signs for this passage, in front of it and after, to say that this is not its place. But why was it written here? In order to make an interruption between one trouble and another” (Rashi Bamidbar 10:35 citing the Gemara in Shabbat 116a). Preceding these psukim, is the section “They journeyed from the mountain of HaShem” (Bamidbar 10:33), while the subsequent pasuk relates: “The people took to seeking complaints” (Bamidbar 11:1). The rightful place of these psukim is in the section detailing the encampment of each tribe. An appropriate place would have been immediately following the pasuk describing the traveling of the Mishkan: “the Tent of Meeting, the camp of the Levites, shall journey in the middle of the camps” (Bamidbar 2:17).


‘When the Ark would journey...’ This is to say that it is not in it’s place. Not just this, but it is a remez for the other place. [Therefore] the Torah makes signs with the reversed [Heb. hafchios] ‘nun.’ As the Talmud says, ‘A bent over [Heb. kafifah] nun [means] forced [Heb. kofif] faith.’ This means when the Jewish people will have all good in this world and they will be in submission to the service of HaShem. However if they are forced due to their sufferings, that is the level of a reversed ‘nun.’ Then the ark and the Torah are hidden from Israel.


For this reason Moshe prayed, ‘Arise HaShem And let your foes be scattered and your enemies from before you.’ These are the enemies of the Jewish people. Then the Ark and the Torah are not hidden. The ‘nun’ is not reversed. Their service to HaShem is with joy. (p. 53 sefer Aish Kodesh teachings of Rebbe Kolonymus Kalman HY’D* of Piasatzna, the son of Rebbe Elimeilech of Grodzisk)




There are dots over 15 words in the Bible and sometimes also under them, one dot over each letter or over some of the letters. The words are distributed as follows: ten places in the Torah (in the tenth place in the Torah, Deut. 29:28, the dots cover eleven letters of three words—all but the last letter— dA        vnynblv vnl), four places in the Prophets, the dots being above in each case, and one word in the Hagiographa (a@l@v@l@; (Ps. 27: 13), where there are dots also beneath the word. There are different traditions on the details. (See the full list in the Masorah Magna for Numbers 3:39, and in Okhlah we-Okhlah (ed. S. Frensdorff, 1864, b96), with the additional bibliography there.) These dots are a very ancient tradition, the evidence concerning some of them going back to the second century C.E.; see, for example, R. Yose in the Mishna (Pes. 9:2) concerning the he with a dot, in the word hcHr (Num. 9:10). A comprehensive list of the location of these dots in the Torah is already found in Sifrei Numbers chap. 69 (ed. Horovitz p. 64–65), R. Simeon bar Yohai being mentioned there; and further evidence is to be found in the Talmud and in the Midrashim. (The references were noted in the Arukh ha-Shalem under “naqad.” and to these should be added Ber. 4a; Naz. 23a; Hot. 10b.) There have been various theories put forth concerning the origin and meaning of these dots (see L. Blau, Masoretische Untersuchungen (Strassburg, 1891), 6–40: Zur Einleitung in die Heilige Schrift (Budapest, 1894), 113–20; R. Butin, The Ten Nequdoth of the Torah (Baltimore, 1906, repr. New York, 1969)); however, they do not belong to the system of vocalization and they also appear in Torah scrolls which are fit for public recitation.


Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:28 The secret [things belong] unto HaShem our God: but those [things which are] revealed [belong] unto us and to our children for ever, that [we] may do all the words of this law.



Bamidbar (Numbers) 3:39 All that were numbered of the Levites, which  Moshe and Aaron numbered at the commandment of HaShem, throughout their families, all the males from a month old and upward, [were] twenty and two thousand.



* * *


Every One to Possess a Sefer Torah.


The Torah, written on a scroll of parchment. The Rabbis count among the mandatory precepts incumbent upon every Israelite the obligation to write a copy of the Torah for his personal use. The passage “Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel” (Deut. xxxi. 19) is interpreted as referring to the whole Torah, wherein “this song” is included (Sanh. 21b). The king was required to possess a second copy, to be kept near his throne and carried into battle (Deut. xvii. 18; Maimonides, “Yad,” Sefer Torah, vii. 1, 2). One who is unable to write the scroll himself should hire a scribe to write it for him; or if he purchases a scroll he should have it examined by a competent Sofer. If a Jew inherits a scroll it is his duty to write or have written another. This scroll he must not sell, even in dire distress, except for the purpose of paying his teacher’s fee or of defraying his own marriage expenses (Meg. 27a).


Method of Preparation.


The Torah for reading in public must be written on the skin (parchment) of a clean animal, beast or fowl (comp. Lev. xi. 2 et seq.), though not necessarily slaughtered according to the Jewish ritual; but the skin of a fish, even if clean, can not be used (Shab. 108a). The parchment must be prepared specially for use as a scroll, with gallnut and lime and other chemicals that help to render it durable (Meg. 19a). In olden times the rough hide was scraped on both sides, and thus a sort of parchment made which was known as “gewil.” Later the hide was split, the outer part, of superior quality, called “chelaf,” being mostly used for making scrolls of the Law, while the inner and inferior part, called “doksostos,” (= δύσχιστος), was not employed for this purpose. The writing was inscribed on the outer or hair side of the gewil, and on the inner or flesh side of the elaf (Shab. 79b). Every page was squared, and the lines were ruled with a stylus. Only the best black ink might be used, colored ink or gilding not being permitted (Massek, Soferim i. 1). The writing was executed by means of a stick or quill; and the text was in square Hebrew characters (ib.).


Size of the Scroll and Margin.


The width of the scroll was about six handbreadths (= 24 inches), the length equaling the circumference (B. B. 14a). The Baraita says half of the length shall equal the width of the scroll when rolled up (Soferim ii. 9). The length of the scroll in the Ark was six handbreadths, equal to the height of the tablets (B. B. l.c.). Maimonides gives the size of the regular scroll as 17 fingers (= inches) long (see below), seventeen being considered a “good” number ( = 17). Every line should be long enough to contain thirty letters or three words equal in space to that occupied by the letters . The lines are to be neither too short, as in an epistle, nor too long, involving the shifting of the body when reading from beginning to end. The sheet (“yeri’ah”) must contain no less than three and no more than eight columns. A sheet of nine pages may be cut in two parts, of four and five columns respectively. The last column of the scroll may be narrower and must end in the middle of the bottom line with the words ktrah kf hbhgk (Men. 30a).


The margin at the bottom of each page must be 4 fingerbreadths; at the top, 3 fingerbreadths; between the columns, 2 fingers’ space; an allowance being made of 1 fingerbreadth for sewing the sheets together. Maimonides gives the length of the page as 17 fingers, allowing 4 fingerbreadths for the bottom and 3 fingerbreadths for the top margin, and 10 fingerbreadths for the length of the written column. In the scroll that Maimonides had written for himself each page measured 4 fingers in width and contained 51 lines. The total number of columns was266, and the length of the whole scroll was 1,366 fingers (= 37.34 yds.). Maimonides calculates a finger-measure as equal to the width of 7 grains or the length of 2 (“Yad,” l.c. ix. 5, 9, 10), which is about 1 inch. The number of lines on a page might not be less than 48 nor more than 60 (ib. vii. 10). The Baraita, however, gives the numbers 42, 60, 72, and 98, based respectively on the 42 travels (Num. xxxiii. 3-48), 60 score thousand Israelites (Num. xi. 21), 72 elders (ib. verse 25), and 98 admonitions in Deuteronomy (xxviii. 16-68), because in each of these passages is mentioned “writing” (Soferim ii. 6). (At the present day the forty-two-lined column is the generally accepted style of the scroll, its length being about 24 inches.) The space between the lines should be equal to the size of the letters (B. B. 13a), which must be uniform, except in the case of certain special abnormalities the space between one of the Torahal books and the next should be four lines. Extra space must be left at the beginning and at the end of the scroll, where the rollers are fastened. Nothing may be written on the margin outside the ruled lines, except one or two letters required to finish a word containing more than twice as many letters.


Some scribes are careful to begin each column with initial letters forming together the words una vhc (“by his name YAH”; Ps. lxviii. 4), as follows: ,hatrc (Gen. i. 1), vsuvh (ib. xlix. 8), ohtcv (Ex. xiv. 28), rna (ib. xxxiv. 11), vn (Num. xxiv. 5), vshgtu (Deut. xxxi. 28). Other scribes begin all columns except the first with the letter “vav”; such columns are called “vave ha-’ammudim” = “the vav columns”.


It is the scribe’s duty to prepare himself by silent meditation for performing the holy work of writing the Torah in the name of God. He is obliged to have before him a correct copy; he may not write even a single word from memory; and he must pronounce every word before writing it. Every letter must have space around it and must be so formed that an ordinary schoolboy can distinguish it from similar letters (Shulkan ‘Aruk, Orach Chayyim, 32, 36; see Taggin). The scroll may contain no vowels or accents; otherwise it is unfit for public reading.




The scroll is not divided into verses; but it has two kinds of divisions into chapters (“parashiyyot”), distinguished respectively as “petuchah” (open) and “setumah” (closed), the former being a larger division than the latter (Men. 32a). Maimonides describes the spaces to be left between successive chapters as follows: “The text preceding the Petuchah ends in the middle of the line, leaving a space of nine letters at the end of the line, and the petuchah commences at the beginning of the second line. If a space of nine letters can not be left in the preceding line, the petuchah commences at the beginning of the third line, the intervening line being left blank. The text preceding the setumah or closed parashah ends in the middle of the line, a space of nine letters being left, and the setumah commencing at the end of the same line. If there is no such space on the same line, leave a small space at the beginning of the second line, making together a space equal to nine letters, and then commence the setumah. In other words, always commence the petuchah at the beginning of a line and the setumah in the middle of a line” (“Yad,” l.c. viii. 1, 2). Maimonides gives a list of all the petuchah and setumah parashiyyot as copied by him from an old manuscript in Egypt written by Ben Asher (ib. viii., end). Asheri explains the petuchah and setumah differently, almost reversing the method. The general practise is a compromise: the petuchah is preceded by a line between the end of which and the left margin a space of nine letters is left, and commences at the beginning of the followingline; the setumah is preceded by a line closing at the edge of the column and commences at the middle of the next line, an intervening space of nine letters being left (Shulchan ‘Aruch).


The poetic verses of the song of the Red Sea (“shirat ha-Yam”; Gen. xv. 1-18) are metrically arranged in thirty lines (Shab. 103b) like bricks in a wall, as illustrated below:


The first six lines are placed thus:



The verses of the song of “Ha’azinu” (Deut. xxxii. 1-43) are placed in seventy double rows, the first four lines as follows:



The scroll must be written in accordance with the Masoretic Ketib, the abnormalities of certain letters being reproduced (See Small and Large Letters). If the final letters l;.ioare written in the middle of a word, or if their equivalents fpmbn are written at the end, the scroll is unfit for public reading (Soferim ii. 10).


Name of God.


Scrupulous care must be taken in writing the Names of God: before every name the scribe must say, “I intend to write the Holy Name”; otherwise the scroll would be unfit (“pasul”) for public reading. When the scribe has begun to write the name of God he must not be interrupted until he has finished it. No part of the name may, extend into the margin outside the rule. If an error occurs in the name, it may not be erased like any other word, but the whole sheet must be replaced and the defective sheet put in the genizah. When the writing is set aside to dry it should be covered, with a cloth to protect it from dust. It is considered shameful to turn the writing downward (‘Er. 97a).


If an error is found in the scroll it must be corrected and reexamined by a competent person within thirty days; if three or four errors are found on one page the scroll must be placed in the genizah (Men. 29b).


The sheets are sewed together with threads made of dried tendons (“gidin”) of clean beasts. The sewing is begun on the blank side of the sheets; the extreme ends at top and bottom are left open to allow stretching. The rollers are fastened to the ends of the scroll, a space of two fingerbreadths being left between them and the writing. Every sheet must be sewed to the next; even one loose sheet makes the scroll unfit. At least three stitches must remain intact to hold two sheets together (Meg. 19a; Git. 60a).


Sewing the Sheets Together.


If the scroll is torn to a depth of two lines, it may be sewed together with dried tendons or fine silk, or a patch may be pasted on the back; if the tear extends to three lines, the sheet must be replaced. If the margin or space between the lines is torn, it may be sewed together or otherwise repaired. Care must be taken that every letter is in its proper place and that the needle does not pierce the letters.


A scroll written by a non-Jew must be put aside in the genizah; one written by a heretic (“apikoros”) or sectarian Jew (“min”) must be burned, as it is to be apprehended that he has wilfully changed the text (Gittim. 45b).


Every one who passes a scroll must kiss its mantle. The scroll may not be kept in a bedroom (M. 25a). A scroll of the Law may lie on the top of another, but not under the scroll of the Prophets, which latter is considered inferior in holiness to the scroll of the Torah (Meg. 27a).


Decayed and worn-out scrolls are placed in the Genizah or in an earthen vessel in the coffin of a talmid-Hakam (Ber. 26b).




The reverence with which the scroll of the Law is regarded is shown by its costly accessories and ornaments, which include a beautiful Ark as a receptacle, with a handsomely embroidered “paroket” (curtain) over it. The scroll itself is girded with a strip of silk and robed in a Mantle of the Law, and is laid on a “mappah,” or desk-cover, when placed on the almemar for reading. The two rollers, “etz hayyim,” are of hard wood, with flat, round tops and bottoms to support and protect the edges of the parchment when rolled up. The projecting handles of the rollers on both sides, especially the upper ones, are usually of ivory. The gold and silver ornaments belonging to the scroll are known as “kele chodesh” (sacred vessels), and somewhat resemble the ornaments of the high priest. The principal ornament is the Crown of the Law, which is made to fit over the upper ends of the rollers when the scroll is closed. Some scrolls have two crowns, one for each upper end.


The Breastplate.


Suspended by a chain from the top of the rollers is the breastplate, to which, as in the case of the crowns, little bells are attached. Lions, eagles, flags, and the Magen Dawid either chased or embossed, or painted, are the principal decorations. The borders and two pillars of Boaz and Jachin on the sides of the breastplate are in open-work. In the center there is often a miniature Ark, the doors being in the form of the two tablets of the Law, with the commandments inscribed thereon. The lower part of the breastplate has a place for the insertion of a small plate, bearingthe dates of the Sabbaths and holy days on which the scroll it distinguishes is used. Over the breastplate is suspended, by a chain from the head of the rollers, the Yad. In former times the crown was placed upon the head of the “Chatan Torah” when he concluded the reading of the Torah on the day of the Rejoicing of the Law, but it was not permitted to be so used in the case of an ordinary nuptial ceremony (Shulchan ‘Aruk, Orach hayyim, 154, 10). The people used to donate, or loan, the silver ornaments used for the scroll on holy days (ib. 153, 18). When not in use these ornaments were hung up on the pillars inside the synagogue (David ibn Abi Zimra, Responsa, No. 174, ed. Leghorn, 1651). In modern times they are placed in a drawer or safe under the Ark when not in use.


For domestic use, or during travel, the scroll is kept in a separate case, which in the East is almost invariably of wood; when of small dimensions this is sometimes made of the precious metals and decorated with jewels.


Personal Copies of the Torah.


The history of the dissemination of the scrolls of the Law is one of vicissitudes. While they were few in number at the time of the Chronicler (II Chron. xvii. 7-9), their number increased enormously in the Talmudic period as a result of a literal interpretation of the command that each Jew should write a Torah for himself, and also in consequence of the custom of always carrying a copy (magic influence being attributed thereto) on the person. In the later Middle Ages, on the contrary, the scrolls decreased in number, especially in Christian Europe, on account of the persecutions and the impoverishment of the Jews, even though for 2,000 years the first duty incumbent on each community was the possession of at least one copy (Blau, l.c. p. 88). While the ancient Oriental communities possessed scrolls of the Prophets and of the Hagiographa in addition to the scroll of the Law, European synagogues have, since the Middle Ages, provided themselves only with Torah scrolls and, sometimes, with scrolls of Esther. Six or nine pigeonholes, in which the rolls are lying (not standing as in modern times), appear in certain illustrations of bookcases (comp. Blau, l.c. p. 180; also illustrations in “Mittheilungen,” iii.-iv., fol. 4), these scrolls evidently representing two or three entire Bibles, each consisting of three parts, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa. Curiously enough, the interior of the Ark in the synagogue of Modena is likewise divided into six parts (comp. illustration in “Mittheilungen,” i. 14).




“And it came to pass while Israel dwelt in the land that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine and Israel heard of it.” (Genesis 35:22)


Rashi mitigates the circumstances, insisting, on the basis of the Talmudic interpretation, that Reuven merely placed his father’s bed in Leah’s tent when - after Rachel’s death, Jacob had placed his bed in Bilhah’s tent. (B.T. Shabbat 55b). Whatever the interpretation, and even if Reuven’s only desire was to save his mother yet another mark of humiliation, it is never a son’s place to determine the private life of his father!


The final phrase in the verse, ‘And Israel heard of it,’ is followed by a blank white space in the Torah scroll; the Vilna Gaon suggests that wherever there is such a white space, it indicates that the subject of the verse - Jacob - wept.



* * *


There is usually a space in the Torah scroll separating one parashah from the next. As is well known, however, no such space exists in-between VaYigash and VaYechi. Rashi quotes the Midrash’s explanation of this phenomenon: “Why is this parasha ‘closed’? ...Ya’akov wanted to reveal to his sons [the time of] the End [of Days], but it was ‘closed off’ from him.” That is, God prevented him from doing so.


* * *



G-d spoke to  Moshe saying, “Speak to the Israelites saying, ‘You may not eat any cheilev (forbidden fat) from oxen, sheep, or goats… You may not eat any blood… whether from birds or from animals’” (7:22-23,26).


The section bringing these two commandments is placed in the Torah towards the end of the laws of the offerings at the Temple. They have been part of the Israelite way of life ever since. They raise many points of interest, among which are:


1. What special qualities do cheilev and blood have, for which the Torah gives them the status of forbidden foods?


2. Cheilev and blood were both burnt on the Altar during Tabernacle and later Temple times. Yet the Torah explicitly states that the prohibition of eating cheilev applies to oxen, sheep, and goats only. It does not include species of animal that are ineligible for Temple offerings, such as the deer. In contrast, the Torah expressly forbids the consumption of blood from all animals and birds. Why does the Torah make that distinction?


3. These prohibitions of eating cheilev and blood are placed in the section of the Torah that deals with peace offerings, thanksgiving offerings. Regarding such offerings, the Talmud (Berachot 54b) brings the following tradition, based on Psalm 107:


Four categories of people are required to bring a thanksgiving offering: those who survived a sea journey, those who survived a journey in the desert, someone who recovered from a dangerous illness, and someone who survived dangerous imprisonment.


What have the prohibitions of cheilev and blood got to do with specifically peace offerings? (The connection: “I gave (blood) to atone for you on the altar” (17:11) applies to other offerings as well, and anyway is in a later Parasha)


4. These two prohibitions are introduced with the frequently used sentences: ‘HaShem spoke to  Moshe saying: “Speak to the Israelites…”‘ However in every other place in the Torah, these expressions are preceded by a mandatory space in the Torah Scroll, represented in the printed Torah with the letter ‘pay’ or ‘samech’. In this case, by contrast, they follow on directly from the previous subject, the laws surrounding peace offerings, without any pause between them. This suggests an unusually strong link between the various offerings and the general prohibition of eating cheilev and blood. What is that connection?


Several commentaries tackle general issue of the prohibition of eating cheilev and blood. The Rambam (in the Guide for the Perplexed) distinguishes between the two. He writes that the Torah forbade cheilev for health reasons. However, he links the consumption of blood with idolatry. “And I know” he writes, “that blood was very unclean in the eyes of the Zaba (a type of idolatry of those days). Yet they nevertheless ate it, thinking that it is the food of the spirits… (and by partaking of blood) they would bring about love and friendship with the spirits, and they assumed that these spirits would come to them in a dream and would tell them the future and help them.” In other words, the prohibition of blood is to move the Israelites away from idolatry, which in those days was linked to blood.


The Ramban brings a more mystical rationale. He develops the reason for the prohibition of eating blood around the idea that the blood is the life force of an animal. (The blood circulates – bringing a constant supply of nutrients and removing waste from all parts of the body.) All lives, says the Ramban, belong to the Almighty. From after the flood, the Torah permitted Mankind to eat animal flesh (Gen. 9:3), for those creatures were created for Man’s needs and enjoyment. But the life-force is close to HaShem – and thus it performs the higher role of becoming part of offering, being consumed on the Altar and thus being returned to the Creator. As the Sifra (8:6) puts it, blood is the medium that goes upon the Altar for atonement, as if to say, “Let one life be offered to atone for another”, in harmony with the text, “I gave (blood) to atone for you on the altar” (17:11).


Developing this idea in a different direction, consider the following proverb: “Do not throw a stone into the well from which you drank.”


All animals benefit man in some way, if only because they form part of the food-chain from which he ultimately benefits. Thus man does not eat worms, but fish do, and people in turn eat the fish. However certain animal species give more to man than others. Fish live in the sea, an environment that man does not share. But birds live on the land and they do not only provide meat, but eggs as well. Permitted wild animals – such as the hart and the deer, also have additional uses. I do not have information about the uses of the deer in ancient history, but today, apart from venison, they contribute musk, coming from a gland on the abdomen of the musk deer, used in medicines and perfumes. In addition, deerskin is used for shoes, boots, and gloves, and their antlers are made into buttons and knife handles. Thus the Torah respects the life-giving force of these creatures which give ‘greater’ service to man, and it requires us not to abuse their basic life-giving force. Instead, when they are slaughtered, their blood must be removed and disposed of, modestly, by covering it up (17:13).


However, the cattle, sheep, and goats – domesticated animals eligible for offerings in the Temple, serve man in greater ways and so man is more dependent on them. Cows convert grass into milk, sheep produce wool and, together with goats, they are milked in some societies even today. Goat’s milk compares favorably in nutritive value with cow’s milk and it is more easily digested by many people. It is used extensively in making cheese. And both cattle and goats still function as beasts of burden in many less advanced economies. So, because they are closer to man, not only is it forbidden to eat their blood – their life-giving force. But their cheilev, their fat ‘reserve of life-giving force’ (broken and converted into nutrients and in turn carried by the blood) is given special respect, as in their lifetime they have been in the direct service of man. This takes us back to the proverb: “Do not throw a stone into the well from which you drank.”


This helps to face the final two questions: what is the connection between peace offerings and the prohibition of eating cheilev and blood. The answer is that they both share the same underlying rationale (therefore the Torah does not put a break between them). That common factor is mankind’s desire to show thanks for the services supplied to him from the Creation. That starts from the Creator Himself – when a person survives illness, imprisonment, a sea or desert journey, he or she should recognize HaShem’s providence and show gratitude – thorough a peace / thanksgiving offering in Temple times, and through recognizing and thanking Him in prayer today. And this same idea applies to His creations, hence the juxtaposition the peace / thanksgiving offering, and the forbidding of eating cheilev and blood even to this day. We benefited directly from those creatures in various degrees, and we are required to show our gratitude by correspondingly respecting the very forces inside them that gave us those benefits…


* * *


Everything is susceptible to midrashic interpretation, including the physical appearance of the Torah text. As you know from aliyot to the Torah, the text of the Torah scroll is not divided onto chapters or verses, as it is in our printed edition of the Torah, but rather into units separated from each other by empty space. When the Torah scroll is raised to be bound and the text is turned to the congregation for viewing, these breaks in the written script stand out conspicuously. The ancient text contains neither vowels nor punctuation, only words arranged in passages of different sizes defined by their context and set off by gaps in the writing.


These breaks are of two sorts: one occurs within the line and is enclosed on both sides by the final word of the passage that precedes and the first word of the passage that follows. The size of the space is the equivalent of nine letters. The other break is unenclosed on the left side (remember Hebrew goes from right to left), leaving the line open. That is, the next passage begins on the following line on the far right. The book of Genesis, for example, contains a total of 91 such breaks, 43 enclosed and 48 open on the left side.


The first of the Torah’s two creation stories shows clearly how this method of demarcation works. Each of the seven days of creation is treated as a distinct literary unit set off by an open space that completes the line. According to this arrangement, HaShem’s resting on the seventh day culminates the creation of the cosmos, and together the seven passages constitute a single narrative unit followed by an open space before the Torah shifts to the Garden of Eden, where the story unfolds without interruption until HaShem informs Eve and Adam of their respective punishment.


Today, we reference biblical passages by chapter and verse. While the division of Scripture into verses is of Jewish provenance dating from the period of the Talmud, the breaking into chapters derives from the Church. In the 13th century, manuscripts of the Vulgate, the accepted Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, edited by Jerome, began to appear divided into chapters. A century later, that division showed up in Hebrew manuscripts and was adopted by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in 1516-17 in the first printed edition of the Hebrew Bible with Hebrew commentaries (Mikraot Gedolot).


Yet, despite its unwieldy nature, the ancient Hebrew system of demarcation is often closer to the content of the text. Such is the case with the example cited above. For some unknown reason, those responsible for the division by chapter saw fit to sever the institution of the Sabbath on the seventh day from the other six days and make it the opening three verses of chapter two, the Eden narrative (Genesis 2:1-3). By contrast, the division in our Torah scroll in this instance perfectly matches form with content. To their credit, standard printed editions of the Haumash in Hebrew preserve the ancient format with spaces marked either by the letter “peh” signalizing an unenclosed space (petuhah- open) or the letter “samekh,” an enclosed one (stumah-closed).


One final comment before my Midrash. The Torah is organized not only into smaller units, either open or closed, totaling 669, but also into 54 longer portions to be read weekly in the synagogue. On occasion, the two are coterminous, as in parashat Miketz, which means the Hebrew text is unbroken for the entire length of the parashah, a nightmare for Torah readers who need to find their spot after each aliyah.


The Midrash turns on the anomaly that no space of any sort distances the end of the last week’s parashah, VaYiggash, from VaYehi. In fact, this is the only time in the Torah that two sequential portions are not set apart by intervening space. The feature prompts the Midrash unexpectedly to observe that Jacob on his deathbed intended to share with his sons a glimpse of things to come, but was denied the vision. The noteworthy absence of any defining space in the Torah scroll at the beginning of VaYehi suggests to the rabbinic imagination that the prophetic insight granted Jacob momentarily near the end of his life quickly evaporated (Bereshit Raba 96:1). A close reading of the words supports this fanciful notion. The first two verses of the deathbed scene seem unduly repetitive: “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father (49:1-2).’” Jacob sounds tentative, almost stalling for time. The illumination is darkening, the vision fading, and Jacob ends up talking about past hurts instead of future blessings: “Reuben, you are my first born ... unstable as water ... For when you mounted your father’s bed (Genesis 35:22), you brought disgrace (49:3-4).”


But what means this poignant all-too human episode? We too yearn for moments of light to illumine the unredeemed world in which we live. At times of terrifying transition, from life to death, from one millennium to another, we peer desperately ahead into a beclouded future. This delicate midrash strikes a sober note which is part of a larger rabbinic agenda, not to speculate about things far beyond our ken. Even a figure as close to HaShem as Jacob on the threshold of life eternal could not penetrate the veil that conceals what awaits us. We are better served by reflecting on the lessons of things past. And so Jacob slips into pondering the import of his family’s turbulent history.


In this spirit of emotional restraint, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, who witnessed the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, urged his countrymen not to mourn excessively. The doing of good deeds has the same redemptive power as the offering of sacrifices (Avot de R. Nathan, ed. Schechter, p. 21). Similarly tempered, he opined that if you were about to plant a sapling and news came that the messiah had arrived, finish your planting and then go out to greet him (same p 67). The failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 C.E. only intensified this anti-cataclysmic state of mind. In Babylonia, Samuel posited that the one difference between the present and the days of the Mashiach will be the end of Jewish degradation (B.T. Berakhot 34b), while in Palestine his contemporary, R. Yonatan, generally excoriated those who wasted their days trying to figure out when the Mashiach would come. Each miscalculation only adds to our despair (B.T. Sanhedrin 97b).


A note of sobriety on the eve of an inebriating passage of time. Better to look backward than forward, on what is perfectly clear and not frustratingly obscure. If we could avoid the horrific crimes against humanity that overwhelm the achievements of the 20th century, our future in the new millennium would be immeasurably brighter.


* * *




What is the Torah about?


As a narrative, it starts with the story of Creation and ends with the death of  Moshe, just before the entry to the Land of Israel. However, it is important straight away to say two things:


1. that the Torah doesn’t just contain narrative. Whole sections (especially in the book Vayikra) deal with laws and commandments;

2. that every single letter is considered important, and has meaning beyond the narrative.


Bereshit (Genesis) starts with two accounts of Creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah. It then continues in chronological order through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the Patriarchs). It then goes on to tell the story of Jacob’s sons and especially of Joseph, his life in Egypt, and then concludes with Joseph’s death in Egypt.


Shemot (Exodus) describes the slavery of the Jews in Egypt, and of their redemption under  Moshe. It describes the leaving of Egypt, and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments and many other laws, and the details of the building of the Sanctuary in the Wilderness are to be found in Exodus.


Vayikra (Leviticus) contains laws and only a small amount of narrative. In Vayikra, HaShem tells  Moshe to explain the laws on Priesthood, sacrifices, purity, and certain civil and criminal laws.


Bamidbar (Numbers) describes how the Jews continued their journey through the Wilderness. It tells of the twelve spies, and the subsequent wanderings of the Jews. Bamidbar ends with the Jews at the borders of the Promised Land, forty years after leaving Egypt.


Devarim (Deuteronomy) contains a review of the Torah, and  Moshe’s parting words to the Children of Israel prior to his death. It also contains further laws. The final chapter describes  Moshe’s death.


Where does it come from? Who wrote it down?


There is obviously controversy amongst different streams of Judaism and Jewish thought about the origin of the Torah. The traditional view is that the Torah is the word of God, communicated to and written down by  Moshe. This view holds that all of the Torah up until Revelation at Mount Sinai (i.e. until the middle of Shemot) was written down by  Moshe. There is then debate about when  Moshe wrote the rest of the Torah. The issue is that if  Moshe wrote it all down whilst on Mount Sinai he would have known what would happen next! Some think that  Moshe wrote the rest of the Torah as it happened, in stages; some believe that  Moshe did write it all on Mount Sinai. All agree that it had all been written by just after the death of  Moshe. Joshua is thought by some to have written the last few verses of the Torah, dealing with  Moshe’s death.


What does it look like?


The Torah text (as written meticulously by a scribe) is different from the Chumash (or Tanach) text.



The Torah scroll does not contain chapter divisions (e.g. Numbers 13:2). These were added later by Christian scholars, but are used in the Chumash printed editions as a universal reference tool. They don’t refer to anything fundamental in the text, from a Jewish point of view. Unlike the Chumash, The Torah scroll doesn’t contain vowels or cantillation (singing) marks. The cantillation marks are used to allow leining (singing) from the Torah in a prescribed manner.


Iin what language is it written?


The Torah is written in Hebrew. This Biblical Hebrew is a very old Hebrew, and is different from more recent dialects (eg. Mishnaic or modern Hebrew). This difference is similar in kind and degree to Shakespearean and modern English. Hence Israelis can read and understand the Torah like English people can read and understand (or not) Shakespeare.


What do we do with it?


in synagogue...


“For it was taught: ‘And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water (Exodus 25:22)’. Upon which those who expound verses metaphorically said: Water means nothing but Torah, as it says: ‘Ho, everyone that thirsts should come for water (Isaiah 55:1)’. It thus means that as they went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted.” - Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Kama 82a.


The Torah is read in public on three different days of each week. It is read on Shabbat morning and afternoon (at the Shacharit and Minchah services), Monday morning (at the Shacharit service) and on Thursday morning (again at Shacharit). Thus there is never a gap of more than three days between public readings of the Torah.


The sages divided the Torah into 54 portions (in the annual cycle – 154 for the Triennial cycle) to allow for a completion in an annual public reading. These portions are called sidrot. Each week, a different sidra is read in synagogue. (Because there are 54 sidrot, some weeks two sidrot are read.) On festivals, two special selections from the Torah relevant to that day are read.


The word parasha is often used to mean sedra, but this is a misnomer. Technically a parasha is a paragraph marked by an indent on a midline blank space in the Torah scroll. Parashot can be as short as a sentence and as long as an entire sidra.


Each sidra is divided into seven aliyot (points at which someone from the congregation makes a blessing on the Torah, commonly known as “call ups”). These aliyot are decided by convention, based on natural spaces in the text. These can be seen in the Torah itself, although they are also made with reference to the content of the passages. On Saturday afternoon, Monday, and Thursday, the first aliyah (call up, or division of the sidra) for the following Shabbat is read, but three people are given the honour of reading it. The first aliyah is therefore subdivided into smaller units for use on three days of the week (these smaller units are still called aliyot though!) Four people are called to the Torah on Rosh Chodesh (the New Month), five, for major festivals (Pesach, Shavout, Succoth, Yom Teruah) and six are called to the Torah on Yom HaKippurim.


On Shabbat, at least seven people are called to the Torah. It is possible to divide the Torah reading into more parts to let more people share in the honour of being called to read it, but whatever happens, the entire Parasha must be read on Shabbat morning.


everyday use...


The Torah is studied extensively, and is the basis for all Jewish learning. That is why the Torah is read in public, to make sure that Jews are learning it. Torah is taught in Jewish schools and synagogues.


There is a custom of reading one division of the sidra each day of the week, so that each week the entire sidra is learnt. There are a number of different ways to learn the ‘Parashot HaShavua’ (which literally means ‘the weekly sidra’), by classes or reading. Study of Torah at home, on the way to work, during leisure time etc. is part of the lifestyle of many Jews. The Torah is one of the most extensively studied Jewish texts.


if I want to read it...


Purchase or borrow a copy of the Torah, or Chumash. The best editions will have easy to read English and a lot of commentaries. The commentaries are the comments of scholars that make interesting points about the Torah text. Reading commentaries is easy and adds a lot of depth to your understanding. Just sit down, maybe start at Bereshit (the first book of  Moshe), and start to read. Or perhaps try to read the weekly sidra each week (perhaps an aliya each day. The editions of the Chumash that one usually finds in synagogue (Hertz or Soncino) have some commentaries on the text included. The Art Scroll edition is also highly recommended.


If you want to understand the themes and appreciate the depths of the Torah, perhaps try to read some other book alongside your Chumash. This is the sort of thing one might need to do when studying Shakespeare or Descartes in an attempt to really appreciate the text. One wouldn’t just read Shakespeare, but a book about the play as well. You can subscribe to weekly newsletters or e-mails on the sidra. But remember, if you don’t read the actual text first, your understanding will be limited (just like with Shakespeare).


* * *


B’ne Gad and B’ne Reuben request Transjordanian territory. They begin by addressing Moshe, Elazar and the assembly chieftains (Num. 32:2), an unusually large group to direct a request to. Why did they not address Moshe? Apparently, they suspected their request will not find favor in his eyes, so by including the others, perhaps having previously engaged in lobbying, they felt they would improve their chances. After all, if they take their possession in Transjordan, the other tribes will receive larger portions of land, a consideration that would not impress Moshe but might count with the chieftains.


Their first statement was merely an assertion of fact to the effect that the land HaShem conquered for Israel is cattle country and they have cattle (ib. v. 4). As the literary formulation of this statement reflects the passage’s opening narrative statement several verses prior (v. 1) to the same effect, it appears that their motive was as implied and not to evade military confrontation. However, understandably, they tried to avoid stating their request explicitly and hoped that the obvious conclusion would be drawn. At this point, however, there is a setumah space in the Torah text followed by a second “vayomeru”, this time speaking to Moshe, indicating their assertion did not elicit the desired result and that it was made clear to them that they must deal with Moshe.


When they explicitly ask to receive their land possession in Transjordan, Moshe forcefully chastises them. He recognizes their request is not based on fear - he doesn’t try to strengthen their trust in G-d as was done in the spy narratives (Num. 14:8-9; Deut. 1:29-33) - but takes them to task for not recognizing the potential danger in their request, that it may be misinterpreted and may trigger a repeat of the sin associated with the spies.


* * *


The last portion of the Torah includes one of its more esoteric phrases -”eish daat, the fiery law.” (Deuteronomy 33:2) The Midrash concludes that this phrase is a description of the Torah. In its words: “eish shahor al gabei eish lavan.” The Torah is written “black fire on white fire.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Genesis 1) What exactly does this mean?


On the simplest level, black fire refers to the letters of Torah, the actual words, which are written in the scroll. The white refers to the spaces between the letters. Together the black letters and white spaces between them constitute the “whole” of the Torah.


On another level, the black fire represents the pshat, the literal meaning of the text. The Hakhamim point to the importance of pshat when stating “the text cannot be taken out of its literal meaning.” The white fire, however, represents ideas that goes beyond the pshat. It refers to ideas that we bring into the text when we interact with it. This is called drash interpretations, applications, and teachings that flow from the Torah. The drash are the messages we read between the lines.


On yet another level, the black letters represent thoughts which are intellectual in nature, whether pshat or drash. The white spaces, on the other hand, represent that which goes beyond the world of the intellect. The black letters are limited, limiting and fixed. The white spaces catapult us into the realm of the limitless and the ever-changing, ever-growing. They are the story, the song, the silence. Sometimes I wonder which speaks more powerfully, the black, rationalistic letters or the white, mystical spaces between them.


Most of the Torah is made up of prose, the narrative of the text. The large majority of our portion is not prose-it is rather poetry. The Hakhamim speak of Divine poetry as black letters resting on the frame of the white empty spaces. “Half bricks on whole bricks,” the Talmud notes. (Rashi, Megillah 16b. sv. Ieveinah) It’s the white fire that gives the black fire its foundation. In fact the spaces in the Torah take up twice the amount of place as the actual letters, perhaps indicating that at times it is of greater importance.


Interestingly, water is the first element mentioned in the Torah; (Genesis 1:2) while fire, eish daat, is the last. There is a marked difference between them. Of course, Torah is often compared to water, both are crucial to life and have endless depth.


Still, water flows toward the lowest level, while fire seeks a higher plateau. It reaches high, higher, and higher still, burning past our eyes and ears into our hearts and souls and memories. It soars heavenward, linking the finite human being with the infinite G-d.


Such is the power of eish daat, the fiery law, the Torah.


* * *


The Torah does something very strange towards the end of this week’s Torah portion. After a lengthy discussion of the melu’im service (the consecration of the mishkan), the Torah immediately describes the karban tamid, the sacrifice which was to be brought in the mishkan (and in the subsequent Temples) twice a day for as long as it existed. The two sections are separated by only a few blank spaces in the Torah scroll, (this type of break being called a Stumah, represented by the Hebrew letter Samech in the Chumash / Pentateuch) after Exodus 29:37. One can imagine  Moshe and the Children of Israel saying to HaShem, “Give us a break already. We just consecrated the mishkan and You already want us to start serving You in it! How about giving us a two week vacation first?”


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leader of German Jewry in the 19th century, explains that the Torah’s decision to juxtapose the consecration service to the daily karban tamid was no accident. HaShem was teaching us a crucial lesson for all eternity. HaShem had promised the Jewish people in last week’s Torah portion, “Make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst you” (Exodus 25:8). Any Jew could have easily assumed that simply building the structure was the goal and ultimate accomplishment. HaShem had promised to dwell amongst the Children of Israel if they built Him a sanctuary, end of story. After one had contributed to the building fund, helped collect the supplies, and maybe even hammered in some nails, he would think that he could go home, completely satisfied with what he had accomplished to the point that he had no desire to participate any further. He had built HaShem’s sanctuary as HaShem had requested.


To prevent people from making such a grave error, the Torah therefore places the commandment to perform the daily karban tamid immediately following the initial consecration of the structure itself. HaShem was telling us that the construction of the Mishkan was not the end, but rather the means to serve Him to our utmost capabilities. We can not go home, satisfied that the Kohanim and Levites will perform our duties in the sanctuary, just as we cannot refrain from participating and attending services in our respective synagogues, satisfied that the Hahamim will fulfill our requirement.


Judaism is a participatory religion with actions and mitzvot designed to bring the morals and ethics alive, not a spectator sport. It is only after the commandment of the karban tamid, when we begin to participate in HaShem’s service on a daily basis, that HaShem reiterates His promise to be our G-d, participating in our daily lives directly (see the commentary of the Sforno on the following verse). As HaShem says in Exodus 29:45 after describing the karban tamid, “I will dwell amongst the Children of Israel, and I will be for them a G-d.”


* * *


Jacob wished to reveal the End of Days and it was concealed from him. This is how Rashi describes the fact that the portion of Vayechi is not preceded by the usual empty spaces in the Torah that follow the end of a topic. What is meant by this?


The late Rabbi Moshe Besdin once explained that we are told that pauses in the narrative of the Torah provided Moshe with the time he needed to contemplate and review his lessons. The absence of such a pause indicates the need to continue learning without taking time for reflection. Jacob desired to reveal the course of Jewish history; a history replete with persecutions, annihilations, etc. Perhaps Jacob wished to reflect on the causes for all this suffering and catastrophe. Regarding this, Jacob was told to “move on”. For this reason, the traditional pause in the Torah is missing. We must go on even when there are no answers to our collective questions.


* * *


The Torah text is one long sequence of 304,805 letters.


* * *

5761 - Vayechi


 And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years. (Bereshit 47:28)


Commenting on this pasuk, Rashi notes that this parsha is stumah. Normally in the Torah, there is a blank space of nine letters between the different sections of the Torah but here there is none. Rashi proceeds to give two separate homiletic reasons as to why this parsha is stumah. The first reason is because with Yaakov’s death the galut commenced and due to the hardships of the galut, the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people closed. The second reason is because Yaakov wished to reveal the time when Mashiach would arrive but was prevented from doing so with the sudden departure of the Divine Presence.


Upon analyzing Rashi’s first explanation that the hearts and eyes of the Jewish people were closed due to the onset of the galut, we may ask, exactly how is this reflected in the lack of blank space between the two sections? In answer to this question the commentators (Or Gedalyaho) explain that generally the reason there is space between the different sections of the Torah is to teach us that one should not attempt to learn the entire Torah without interruption. One must stop between the sections in order to absorb and reflect upon its teachings and messages. In the words of chazal this is called “revach l’hisbonain bain inyan l’inyan,” which is loosely translated as, open space [is provided in order to give one a chance] to contemplate between one topic and the next. A tragic aspect of galut is that due to our troubles and hardships we lack the presence of mind that would enable us to contemplate on our purpose in life and the significance of the events that occur around us. We lack “revach l’hisbonen” In parshat vayechi the galut commenced and in order to highlight this, the opening pasuk lacks “revach l’hisbonen.”


With this in mind, let us suggest that Rashi’s two different explanations are really linked. They are two sides of the same coin.


The redemption of the Jewish people from the exile of Egypt it was not a sudden occurence. The redemption occurred in two stages. Chazal tell us that on Rosh HaShanah we were freed from the hard labor, but it was not until six and a half months later, on the fifteenth of Nisan, that we actually left Egypt. We may ask, what is the significance of these two stages? Why didn’t HaShem just orchestrate the redemption so that we would leave Egypt suddenly? The answer is that redemption is not just the attainment of freedom. In order for us to understand the significance of the event, HaShem provided us with a six and a half month grace period in which we were free to focus on what was about to occur. This period is what we refer to as “revach l’hisbonen.”


Rashi’s first reason was explained above. Now we may understand how the second reason immediately follows. A prerequisite for any redemption is the revach l’hisbonen period, as we have seen in our redemption from Egypt. Therefore, because the hearts and eyes of Yaakov’s children were closed with the onset of galut (exile) they lacked the revach l’hisbonain that was necessary for an appreciation of geulah. Thus, Yaakov’s children could not appreciate the significance of the ultimate redemption, and therefore Yaakov was prevented from revealing to them the details of the geulah. The two explanations of Rashi are closely related. In galut there is no loss of “revach l’hisbonen.” Without revach l’hisbonen we cannot appreciate the significance of the ‘end of days’ and are therefore prevented from knowing in advance when Mashiach will come.


Let us bring a proof to the relationship of these two ideas from Megillat Esther. When Mordechai attempted to persuade Esther to be instrumental in saving the Jewish people he warned her that if she did not help, the Jewish people would be saved without her and only she would be the one to suffer. A simple translation of his words are, “Revach, and help, will come for the Jews from another source.” We may ask, what did Mordechai add with the word “revach.” Why didn’t Mordechai simply say that, “help would come from another source?” The answer is that an integral aspect of redemption is the grace period that comes before the actual redemption. This grace period allows time for introspection. Therefore, Mordechai first said revach and then “help.” We see here that the two ideas of Rashi are linked. The theme of Mordochai’s instructions is redemption. This is similar to the second reason given by Rashi, a reference to the ultimate redemption. Yet, the posuk refers to redemption with the word “revach” which is the word and concept that was used to explain Rashi’s first reason. The message is that without revach l’hisbonain there can be no redemption.


In this vein, let us explain a prayer that we recite every Monday and Thursday in ta’cha’nun. We ask HaShem “to show us a sign for good.” We may ask, what exactly are we praying for. Most of our prayers are filled with explicit requests for salvation and redemption. However, this prayer implies that we are asking for something that comes before the actual salvation. We seek a sign that salvation is on the way even though it has not yet arrived. What exactly is the nature of this request?


The letter tet in the Hebrew alphabet literally represents the number nine. However, it is also a symbol for the word good. This is because the first time the letter tet appears in the Torah, it is found in the first letter of the word tov, which is translated as good. The amount of space that is missing in the beginning of our parsha is the blank space of nine, i.e., tet letters. As explained, this blank space symbolizes our lack of “revach lishbonain.” Further, the Hebrew word for sign or omen is oas which also can be translated as a “letter of the alphabet.” If we now take this prayer more literally, it may be translated as a request that HaShem “show us a letter for tov.” As mentioned above, tet also represents the number nine. Now we may revise the translation as “show us a letter for nine.” Were do we find the concept of a hidden letter that also is related to the number nine that we now yearn to see? The answer is the nine blank spaces that are missing in between vayigash and vayechi. We ask HaShem to widen the gap between the two sections and show us the revach. We ask HaShem to fulfill the words of Mordechai “Revach and help will come.” We ask HaShem to grant us “revach l’hisbonain,” “a sign for good,” the revach which is the precursor to the actual salvation.


 May we merit to see the revach between the sections and the ultimate geulah.


* * *


(Vayikra 23:15). The Chinuch (Mitzvah #273) explains that the we count the days to Shavuot in order to demonstrate that from the moment we left Egypt with the knowledge that we were on our way to receive the Torah, we eagerly counted the days until that moment arrived. Our annual Omer-count, too, is a sign of our longing for the Torah. Consequently, the Omer-count serves as an introduction to the festival of Shavuot.


Shibbolei Haleket (3:236) explains that the Torah hints at this association between the Omer-count and the Receiving of the Torah in the verse cited above. HaShem tells Moshe that the people “will worship (*Ta’avdun*) HaShem on this mountain” (i.e., they will receive the Torah). There is an extra letter “Nun” at the end of the word *Ta’avdun*. The letter “Nun,” which has a numerical value of fifty, was added to the word to show that *fifty* days after the Jewish People left Egypt, they would receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. These 50 days are the forty-nine days of the Omer-count, and Shavuot.


* * *


Originally, the Torah was so well preserved that every letter was counted (Kiddushin 30a), which is why the early scribes were given the title “Soferim” (“Counters/Scribes”). Thousands of traditions were handed down specifying orthographic details. One of the more well-known is that the letter ‘Vav’ of the word ‘Gachon’ in this week’s Parasha (Vayikra 11:42) is the middle letter of the Torah (Kiddushin, ibid. -- refer to Rabbi Kornfeld’s “Torah from the Internet” p. 122 for an in-depth discussion of this and similar traditions.)






* * *

The Tablets are HaShem’s handiwork and the script was HaShem’s writing engraved ( charus) on the Tablets. Do not read charus (engraved), but cheirus (freedom), for there is no freer man than one who engages in the study of Torah. (Pirke Avos 6:2)


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bet, vet

beis, veis























































Fence, hedge, chamber
























ך כ

kaf, khaf

kof, chof




ך כ






cattle goad






ם מ









ן נ












A prop















ף פ

pe, fe

pei, fei







ץ צ



fish hook





20px-Isade, 20px-Isade2




















shin, sin

shin, sin









tov/tof, sov/sof











Three Mothers


Air (Uranus)


Water (Neptune)


Fire (Pluto)


The Seven Doubles
















The Twelve Simples
































































This study was written by

Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David

(Greg Killian).

Comments may be submitted to:


Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian

4544 Highline Drive SE

Olympia, WA 98501


Internet address:  gkilli@aol.com

Web page:  http://www.betemunah.org/


(360) 918-2905


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[1] Much of this study was derived from materials in The Jewish Encyclopedia.

[2] Chanukah In a New Light, by Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, page 115-116, Published by David Dov Foundation, 603 Twin Oaks Drive, Lakewood, NJ, 08701

[3] Tiferet Yisrael 64

[4] Tiferet Israel 64

[5] Rashi quotes, and the families of scribes — Soferim — which dwelt at Jabez; I Chron. II, 55. The term is generally applied to the band of Scholars from the Babylonian exile, who propagated the knowledge of the Torah and interpreted it.

[6] To safeguard the correctness of the text. Soferim is taken in the original sense of its root safar, ‘to count’.

[7] Whatsoever goeth upon the belly — Leviticus 11:42.

[8] Leviticus 10:16: And Moses diligently enquired after — darosh darash — the goat of the sin-offering.

[9] Leviticus 13:33: we-hithggalah, then he shall be shaven. [In M.T. the words ‘he placed on him’ (Lev. VIII, 8) is given as the middle verse.]

[10] Psalm 80:14.

[11] It is not stated whether letters or words are meant: S. Strashun observes that he counted the words, and found that the first half exceeds the second by nearly 2,000; hence the reference is to letters, and there is such a reading too.

[12] Psalm 78:38.

[13] The Book of Ruth, Me’am Lo’ez, by Rabbi Shmuel Yerushalmi, translated by E.vanHandel, edited by Dr. Zvi Faier, page 106.