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hatam_soferet ([personal profile] hatam_soferet) wrote2008-07-20 03:54 pm

The inverted nun - נון הפוכה, nun hafucha

Numbers 10:35-36:

Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, "Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you." Whenever it came to rest, he said, "Return, Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel."

Vayhi binsoa ha-aron


In today's Torah scrolls, these two verses are bracketed by inverted letter nuns, as you can see in the picture.

The interesting thing about these nuns is that nobody really knows what they're supposed to look like, nobody really knows where they ought to be, and nobody really knows what they're doing there anyway, and yet they exist and are a prescribed part of every sefer Torah.

What're they doing there?

An anonymous talmudic voice (Shabbat 115b) says that God put special markers at the beginning and end of this particular section, to indicate that this wasn't really where it should be. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel thinks it ought to have been back in chapter 2, where the Torah is describing how the camp of Israelites went on the march. This troubles me; the rabbis are working on the premise that God placed every letter in the Torah with extreme care, and this is the equivalent of the Divine Post-It Note.

Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi says that they are not error marks, they indicate that these two verses are a separate little book of Torah all on their own, so really there are three Books of Numbers and seven books of Torah (you hear that? Seven. Not five). This is all very well, but it doesn't really fit in too well with the general rabbinical theme of there being five books of the Torah.

One suspects that the markers had been there time out of mind, and whatever the original reason was, it had been mystified by the time the rabbis of the Talmud were discussing them. Some of the scribal traditions are like that. They go so far back we don't know anything about them except that they are, and the best we can do is try to find explanations which seem to work more or less. Personally, I like that. I don't care to try puzzling out what God was thinking, but I find it deeply reassuring that something can be that old and still extant.

Where ought they to be?

The Maharshal, in sixteenth-century Poland, (responsa, 73) says that the inverted nuns aren't floating in the white space, they're the nuns in binsoa and the first nun in the next verse, in mitonennim. This is because he can't conceive of its being okay to add extra letters to the Torah, even if they're inverted. (He has a point.) Mordechai Pinchas has an awesome scan of a really old Torah with the nuns done the Maharshal's way - check it out.

What do they look like?

You'll note that I translated the Talmud piece special markers. The term is סימניות. They're not described in the Talmud as inverted nuns - doesn't mean they weren't, naturally. The Talmud generally seems to assume that its readers know what a Torah scroll looks like inside, so naturally it would assume we know what the special markers look like.

However. Even once we know that the special markers are inverted nuns, inverted can mean a bunch of things (the Hebrew term is הפוכה, incidentally).

An ordinary letter nun looks like this.

This is one way of inverting a letter nun - flip it over a horizontal axis.

Of course, you could also flip it over a vertical axis.

Or you could make it twisty, and have the leg crossing over halfway down.

But nobody, now, really knows. So, as with many customs which are obscured by time, you follow the tradition of your teacher, and hope for the best. These are only three of the possibilities - if you look in Menachem Kasher's Torah Sheleima, vol. 29, you'll see rather a lot of others.

I haven't got someone handing down customs to me, so I copy what's in my tikkun. That's my writing at the top of the post - you see I flip the nun over a vertical axis.

And the coolest thing?

So does Xestia c. nigrum, the Setaceous Hebrew Character moth.



Moth image from Field Guide to Butterflies & Moths of Britain and Europe, Dr H. Reichholf-Riehm.

NICE but pictures missing, did you know ?

(Anonymous) 2014-01-03 01:17 pm (UTC)(link)
as above, enjoyed dipping in to read - hwyl ! - dai ... actually, for interest's sake since you are a scribe : I am just hanging around having a Welsh breakfast ( tea + cigarettes ) and thinking about the links between ' shin ' and Phoenician ' W ' and Greek Epsilion etc having just before looking here touched upon their links to the Cyrillic letters that can be used which include a ' square ' but I know that in medieval Welsh the modern di-graph ' dd ' was also represented by a ' square ' which was derived from ' D ' which is derived from Greek ' delta ' which of course is related to King David's harp which is ... SERIOUSLY though I was thinking about the idea of ' shin ' as ' teeth ' and pondering the number of snakes around Moses including the one reputed to have been carved beside his tomb ... no answers required from you ... just enjoying myself and wanted to share ... pob lwc !