Here’s a section of parashat Shemini, from Leviticus 10:16: וְאֵת שְׂעִיר הַחַטָּאת דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ מֹשֶׁה וְהִנֵּה שֹׂרָף – And Moses he inquired diligently concerning the goat of the sin offering, and, behold, it was burnt. See how the scribe has stretched out the first words of the verse so dramatically? What’s going on there?

An early masoretic note, preserved in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) says that the words דרש דרש, he inquired diligently, are the middle words of the Torah.

By the time of the 1525 Mikraot Gedolot, we see the masoretic note in the form חצי התורה בתיבות דרש מכא ודרש מכא – Half of the Torah in words. Darosh from here, and Darash from here. You might well see this version in your printed chumash. The Masoretes are concerned with arithmetical questions: what’s the middle letter, the middle verse, the middle word? This note makes it plain that דרש finishes one half of the Torah, and דרש starts the second half.

In Masechet Sofrim, we see this note listed in chapter 9. Chapter 9 concerns itself with layout ideas—big and small letters, tagin, line breaks. It’s not a chapter about arithmetical concerns at all, so what is our arithmetical masoretic note doing here? It seems that the editor of Sofrim interpreted the masoretic note not arithmetically but spatially; Half of the Torah in words; Darosh from here [the end of the line], and Darash from here [the beginning of the new line].

Sofrim’s words are דרש דרש חצי תיבות של תורה, דרש בסוף שיטה דרש בראש שיטה– Darosh darash are the half[way point] of the words in the Torah; Darosh at the end of a line, and Darash at the beginning of a line. The verse must contain a line break! A layout rule has been created by interpretation.
This rule is not authoritative. Many Torah scrolls do not have a line break between דרש and דרש. But many do, and some scribes will stretch their letters, as above, to accomplish it.

But this is not the end of the story. After being interpreted arithmetically and spatially, our idea undergoes another transformation and is interpreted homiletically, by the 18th-century polymath R’ Hayyim Joseph David Azulai. He says:

Darosh at the end of a line, and Darash at the beginning of a line

This means – when you have expounded (darosh) the Torah to the point that you think you have exhausted all its meaning, and you think that you are at the very end of the “line” – not the line of layout, but the line of enquiry and scholarship – you should realize that you are really only “expounding the beginning of the line”.

Our sefer has something extra–both instances of דרש look like this:

With profuse thanks to Gabriel Wasserman.

Mirrored from


This week’s parasha describes the worship-tent that God commands the Israelites to construct in the wilderness.

Around the tent, they are to construct a courtyard, of panels held between columns.

Perhaps you’ve seen a Torah scroll being unrolled around a sanctuary at Simchat Torah. You’ve seen how it’s long enough to go around the whole room, the panels of Torah surrounding the congregation like the panels surrounding the worship-tent.

It’s here in our parasha that we find the phrase ווי העמדים. Vavei ha’amudim, the hooks of the columns.

We haven’t made a worship-tent for millennia, but this particular little phrase lives on today in our Torah scrolls in an unexpected way. Scrolls have columns–of writing. And they have hooks–letter vav.

Most new scrolls today, CBH’s being no exception, are written such that almost every column starts with the letter vav.

It wasn’t always so. As late as the 1830s we find scribes’ rulebooks faithfully repeating that it is more or less forbidden to arrange the columns thus. In order to contrive a vav at the top of the column, scribes would perform tremendous feats of stretching and squishing, at the cost of uniform script and column width. Since a Torah is supposed to be a beautiful scroll and not a cutesy word game, scribes were vigorously discouraged from doing it.

By now, it has become an entrenched custom, such that I occasionally get panicked phonecalls from people who have noticed that their scrolls don’t have every column starting with vav, and I have to reassure them that it is perfectly all right.

How did it start? There seems to have been a rather early (gaonic?) custom of arranging for six particular words to appear at the tops of columns, for added significance. As it happened, these six words began with the letters ביה שמו. Over time, some scribes started to arrange their scrolls so that every column began with one of those six letters (53% of the words in Torah begin with one of those letters, so it’s not so difficult to arrange). And at some point, the idea of doing this just with vav (17% of the Torah’s words begin with vav) seeded and took root, becoming widespread sometime in the past 300 years.*

When did it start? Not clear. The Maharam of Rothenberg (thirteenth-century Ashkenaz), fulminating against it, said that there was no evidence the gaonim ever thought of doing it.** Rather, he said, the idea originated with one Leontin of Milhausen, who was showing off his skills.

Not everyone was against the custom. Various kabbalistic authors wove marvellous romances around the letter vav and its numerical representation, six, and the mystical and messianic relationships therein. The Hida has an interesting comment:*** he asks howcome vavei haamudim has become a widespread custom even though respected authorities say it is forbidden? Paraphrasing him a little, the answer is that Jewish communities are blessed with insight from God, so if communities are drawn to a thing, that thing must have some deep significance, and its existence is somehow divinely sanctioned.

The word vav literally means a hook, and the letter vav is also how we say “and” in Hebrew. Hooks hold physical constructs together, and vavs hold linguistic constructs together. What do the vavei haamudim hold together?

Some say the sheets of Torah–yeriot; curtains, veils—are held up by the hooks between heaven and earth. The columns of Torah form the metaphorical worship-tent in which Israel dwell, watched over by God above.

We might also suggest that the vavs of the columns are a reminder that times change. From being a minority position disapproved of by generations of Torah greats, vavei haamudim Torahs have become the default, with layers of meaning woven into them. Every generational vav, every individual “and”, contributes to incremental change; the old still hooked into the new, all held together, but the despised becoming beloved.****

* Yonatan Koletch (p392 footnote 200) quotes R. D. Yitzchaki: the concept of vavei haamudim scrolls “was introduced only during the past several hundred years by R. Ezra of Pisa”, but this seems to be an oversimplification.
** Quoted in the Hagahot Maimoniot, hilkhot sefer Torah, 7:7, but remember this is polemic and we don’t know how much evidence he was looking at.
*** Birkei Yosef, YD 273.
**** Add your own hobby-horse here. Social justice, feminism, disabled rights, race equality…

Mirrored from

I wanted to do you a post about why there aren’t any vowels or musical notation-marks in a sefer Torah, but when I came to study the subject, I realised it’s a good deal more complicated than can fit into one post. It seemed to require a brief history of vowel-marks, which in turn required a brief history of the alef-bet, which in turn required a brief history of writing in general.

So we’re going to start with a brief history of writing, and then we’ll do the alef-bet, and then we’ll do vowel-marks, and then we’ll be sorted.

Let’s get into it by way of Yosef. This week’s parsha and last week’s, Vayigash and Miketz, tell us about Yosef, employed in a high administrative position tracking and controlling food supplies for an enormous region through fourteen years of plenty and famine.

This kind of activity is how writing was invented, we think. People wanted to keep track of how many things they had (or were owed), so they used tallies, with one-to-one correspondence between the number of marks and the number of things; tally marks have been in use since the Stone Age, a matter of some forty thousand years.

Writing seems to have evolved independently in various areas. We’re ultimately interested in the alef-bet, so we’re going to take that route, but it’s worth remembering that this isn’t the only history of writing out there.

Between 8000 and 4000 BCE people used a token-based kind of abstraction for record-keeping: pebbles or clay tokens representing quantities. One pebble in a jar means one goat in the field; two pebbles in a different jar represents two baskets of grain, and you’d better remember which is which. During these four millennia, the level of abstraction expanded somewhat, such that instead of sixty-three pebbles in a jar meaning sixty-three I-think-it-was-goats-or-is-that-the-grain-jar-damn, you had one sixty-goat token and three one-goat tokens in your jar, and maybe some grain-tokens too, if you had any grain.

Keeping your goat record in a jar leaves you a bit open to your accountant hooking some of your goats, though, so people developed the habit of sealing their tokens in clay containers. Very nice and secure, right?

But a bit tiresome when you want to check up on how many goats you’ve got, that being the whole point of this record-keeping business anyway. Rather than keep on breaking open and resealing the clay containers, around 3500 BCE people started marking the containers while the clay was still wet, using a stylus to carve representations of the contents’ type and quantity.

The next step was to realise that once you have those marks in the clay, the tokens inside the jars are obsolete. The marks are now fully representing real-life objects, without the intermediary stage of tokens; they are no longer mnemonic but pictographic.

Once you’re writing things like “60 goats,” you might also want to convey “Belonging to me” or “When I counted them in the springtime”. Marks come to convey not just objects but ideas and situations.

The next step in the history of writing is using marks to represent sounds. You’ve read the Just So Stories, I take it? If not, go read the one under the link, and then come back.

Say a culture has a symbol :) okay? It starts out representing someone with a smiley face, so when you see it, you think of someone smiling. How do you speak it? :) also stands for the sound which comes out of your mouth when you say “smileyface.” Eventually, we might abbreviate :) to be the sound “sm”.

This is how alphabetic writing systems are born. More about that next week.

Mirrored from

IMG_5296You haven’t had time to forget the story of the spies yet. Moses sends twelve good men and true out of the wilderness to check out the Promised Land; they come back reporting that the land is full of scary giants; the people decide that they actually don’t want to invade right now thanks all the same; and God is wroth.

The end of the first aliyah:

וּמָ֣ה הָ֠אָרֶץ הַשְּׁמֵנָ֨ה הִ֝וא אִם־רָזָ֗ה הֲיֵֽשׁ־בָּ֥הּ עֵץ֙ אִם־אַ֔יִן וְהִ֨תְחַזַּקְתֶּ֔ם וּלְקַחְתֶּ֖ם מִפְּרִ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ וְהַ֨יָּמִ֔ים יְמֵ֖י בִּכּוּרֵ֥י עֲנָבִֽים׃ And what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be trees therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring ye of the fruit of the land.” And the days were the days of the ripening of the grapes.

Here’s something interesting. Various nineteenth-century chasidic commentators, such as Hekhal Ha-berakha (Rabbi Isaac Judah Jehiel Safrun, 1865) say that this is a Bad Place to end the aliyah, because it refers to harsh judgement, and you aren’t supposed to end aliyot on negative notes.

What is negative about grapes?! The season is that of blooming and flourishing, when the harvest is full of fine promise and the land full of beauty. Why is this bad?

Enter Seder ‘Olam Rabba, an early rabbinic text attributed to the Tanna Eli‘ezer ben Yosé Ha-gelili, which calculates biblical chronologies. The Israelites spent a year less ten days at Sinai (Numbers 10:11), thirty days at Qivroth-Ha‑ta’ava (11:19-20), and seven days at Ḥatzerot (12:15). And then, the spies left the camp on the last day of Sivan — late June or early July, the days of the first ripening of the grapes. They returned forty days later, on the Ninth of Av. And on that day God declared that none of that generation would enter the land.

In later sources, the months of Tammuz and Av, especially between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, become understood as forboding, dangerous, or even demonic. A time of gathering wrath and impending curse. The Zohar even ties the verse to the Tree from which the Sin of Adam was committed, which some rabbinic sources identify as a grape-vine (the source of wine, which leads to sin). The author of the Zohar sees these weeks as the time when the universe re-lives the Sin of Adam.

In the 17th century, R’ Samson of Ostropolia even reads the word ‘anavim, grapes, as a reference to Samma’el, the Devil himself: through a caesar cipher, the word ענבם converts to סמאל, when each letter of the word is replaced by the preceding letter in the alphabet. Surely the chasidic sources who refuse to end the aliyah on this word are worried about something extremely frightening.

But we who end the first aliyah on these words are surely seeing the grapes as a positive thing. We’re more like the view of the Keli Yaqar (Ephraim of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) which views the ripe grapes in our verse as symbolizing the state of the Israelites at this point in their narrative; their time had come to enter the land, for they had already ripened, like grapes; their perfection had become complete from the Torah which they had learned at Sinai. And so it is that the sefer Torah is wearing a leafy crown with grapes; we put it on for Shavuot, and we will take it off only before the Ninth of Av.


This view is based on Psalm 80:9-16, which has an extended metaphor of Israel as a grape-vine:

גֶּ֭פֶן מִמִּצְרַ֣יִם תַּסִּ֑יעַ תְּגָרֵ֥שׁ גּ֝וֹיִ֗ם וַתִּטָּעֶֽהָ׃
פִּנִּ֥יתָ לְפָנֶ֑יהָ וַתַּשְׁרֵ֥שׁ שָֽׁ֝רָשֶׁ֗יהָ וַתְּמַלֵּא־אָֽרֶץ׃
כָּסּ֣וּ הָרִ֣ים צִלָּ֑הּ וַֽ֝עֲנָפֶ֗יהָ אַֽרְזֵי־אֵֽל׃
תְּשַׁלַּ֣ח קְצִירֶ֣הָ עַד־יָ֑ם וְאֶל־נָ֝הָ֗ר יֽוֹנְקוֹתֶֽיהָ׃
לָ֭מָּה פָּרַ֣צְתָּ גְדֵרֶ֑יהָ וְ֝אָר֗וּהָ כָּל־עֹ֥בְרֵי דָֽרֶךְ׃
יְכַרְסְמֶ֣נָּֽה חֲזִ֣יר מִיָּ֑עַר וְזִ֖יז שָׂדַ֣י יִרְעֶֽנָּה׃
אֱלֹהִ֣ים צְבָאוֹת֮ שֽׁ֫וּב נָ֥א הַבֵּ֣ט מִשָּׁמַ֣יִם וּרְאֵ֑ה וּ֝פְקֹ֗ד גֶּ֣פֶן זֹֽאת׃
וְ֭כַנָּה אֲשֶׁר־נָֽטְעָ֣ה יְמִינֶ֑ךָ וְעַל־בֵּ֗֝ן אִמַּ֥צְתָּה לָּֽךְ׃
8 Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.
9 Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land.
10 The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars.
11 She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river.
12 Why hast thou then broken down her hedges, so that all they which pass by the way do pluck her?
13 The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it.
14 Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine;
15 And the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself.

Mirrored from

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Jun. 23rd, 2010 01:31 pm)

Another interesting titbit from Eisenberg, absolutely courtesy of Gabriel, because Jen is not in the habit of reading long Hebrew introductions to random books, and Gabriel is.

Remember that Eisenberg dissed Edomites, and said that they were sexually iniquitous. Well, there is an “Important Disclaimer” (מודעה רבה) in the front of the book:

To anyone who reads this book: Note that any time I mention the following words:
‫עכו”ם, גוי, ישמעאל, עמלק, אדום‬ [Akum/Star-Worshipper, Goy, Ishmaelite, Amalek, Edom], I am referring to the ancient peoples who lived at the time of the Targumim and the Mishna and the Talmud, who used to worship stars and constellations, and did not believe at all in the Creator and His providence, as Maimonides wrote in the Yad Ha-Hazaqa, הלכות עבודה זרה, and in the More Nevukhim, section 3, chapters 29-30. He calls them Sabaeans.

However, none of this has anything to do with the nations today, in whose midst we live. On the contrary, they recognize God, and the Sages commanded us to pray for the wellbeing of their state, and we still do so even today, each Sabbath. This is especially true about Russia. We can make an a fortiori argument from Egypt. For we lived in Egypt for only 210 years, and nevertheless the Torah commanded us “You must not abhor an Egyptian”, and Rashi comments: “At all – even though they threw your sons into the River. Why? Because they gave you hospitality when you were in need.”

And all the more so, yes, quite, all the more so about the hospitality which Russia has provided us For it has been expansive hospitality for the Jewish people, for almost 1,000 years. Therefore, we are obligated to pray for their welfare, and the welfare of their state.

Recall he said – …there is nothing which hurts one’s fellow more than telling him the truth. Therefore, the King of Edom became furious at Moses.

And compare today’s disclaimer, which may be summarised Any time I say rude things about non-Jewish rulers, any similarity to real-life characters is totally accidental.

And form your own conclusions about what’s going on there.

Mirrored from

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Jun. 22nd, 2010 01:31 pm)

Joint post from Jen and Gabriel

Part 1 – Gabriel writes:

When Moses sends messengers to the King of Edom, requesting passage for the Israelites through his land, their message includes the following line:

נעברה נא בארצך, לא נעבר בשדה ובכרם ולא נשתה מי באר

May we please pass through thy land? we will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from the wells. (Numbers 20:17)

The Palestinian family of Targumim (”Targum Yerushalmi”), however, understands this figuratively:

נעיבר כען בארעך לא נינוס אניסן (נ”א אריסן) ולא נשרגנא בתולן ולא נבעי (נ”א נבעול) נשי גוברין:

May we please pass through thy land? we will not we will not bonk betrothed babes, nor will we violate virgins, nor will we make merry with married matrons.

And the paytan Yannai renders the verse thus, in his liturgy for the relevant Sabbath:

חָדוֹל נַחְדּוֹל מִשָּׂדֶה וְרָחוֹק נִרְחַק מִכֶּרֶם
מִלְּפַתּוֹת בְּתוּלוֹת וּמִלֶּאֱנוֹס אֲרוּסוֹת
טָעוֹם לֹא נִטְעַם מִמֵּימֵי הַבְּאֵר
הַבְּעוּלוֹת אֲשֶׁר מְשׁוּלוֹת בְּמֵי בְאֵר

We shall surely keep away from the field, and stay far from the vineyard,
Won’t seduce virgins, nor rape betrothed women;
We shall surely not taste from the waters of the well -
The married women, who are compared to the waters of a well.

Part 2 – Jen asks:How does that play out when Moses says in verse 19 “and if we drink from the wells, we’ll pay for it”? “We might accidentally have sex with your women, but if we do, we’ll totally pay you for them”?

Part 3 – Gabriel responds: I’ll have to find a less fragmentary version of a Palestinian Targum, and see how it translates verse 19.

Then Gabriel went to the library, and came back with the following:

All the Targumim seem to translate verse 19 literally.

So, why the first part, verse 17, nonliterally, and the second one, verse 19, literally?

We find an answer of sorts in the works of one Yochanan Eisenberg, in ינחנו לשלשה תרגומים (Warsaw, 1900). He, like us, wants to know – where on earth did that come from? He’s working with the Targum of Jonathan:

Why did Moses ask the same question twice? The general claim about verse 19 [see, e.g., Rashi] is that Moses’s offer to the king of Edom said that the Israelites would refrain from drinking from the Miraculous Well [which travelled the wilderness along with Israelites], and buy water from the Edomites, so as to give them business – but the King of Edom did not agree. If this interpretation is correct, then why did he ask a second time, saying “and if we drink your water, we will pay”? The Jonathan is responding to this question.

Moreover, it is problematic that the text uses different expressions in verses 17 and 19. The first time, it says “water of the well”, and the second time, it says “your water;” the first time, it says: “we will walk on the King’s Road”, and the second time, “we shall ascend on the highway.” Moreover, why does verse 17 say that “Moses” asked him, and verse 19 say “the Israelites” asked him? And why did they say, the second time, “I and my flock”? And the expression “I shall pass through with my feet” is odd. And the word “to him” in verse 18 is redundant. And why did the King of Edom say the first time “You may not pass through me”, and the second time just “You may not pass through”, without saying “through me”? Finally, it is odd that he says: “Lest I greet you with the sword” — why lest? after all, if they trespass his land without his permission, he is definitely going to greet them with the sword.

These, in case you’re not used to the style, are the sorts of questions a certain kind of commentator concerns himself with. There is a sort of theological principle that no words in the Torah are superfluous; therefore, variations such as those cited must have meaning.

Another sort of commentator will look at the text and say “Huh, that’s oddly repetitious. Must be two narratives being merged by the redactor.” This is an interesting, but much less fruitful, kind of approach. We are taking the fruitful approach here, trying to find some meaning in the variations within the text.

Back to Eisenberg. He’s finished outlining the difficulties he sees with the text, to which he thinks the Targum is responding, and now he’s going to explain how the Targum’s non-intuitive translation answers all those difficulties.

The Jonathan had a deep intent with all this. Namely,

Moses wanted to uproot from the heart of the King of Edom any concerns that Israel would perform the activity which he himself was accustomed to do, and which was an inheritance from his ancestor Esau: “He used to hunt men’s wives and sexually afflict them” (Bereshit Rabba 61) – and as R. Jochanan says in Bava Bathra 16: “[Esau] slept with a betrothed maiden.” Therefore, [Moses] sent a message to [the King of Edom] which could be interpreted on two levels.

Now, there is nothing which hurts one’s fellow more than telling him the truth. Therefore, the King of Edom became furious at Moses. This is why verse 18 says “the King of Edom said to him,” where the word “to him” seems redundant. What it means is that his wrath was directed specifically at Moses, who had made a clever double entendre at him; it was not befitting the honour of a king to hear such language. And then, the second time, he was forced to greet him with the sword, on account of this.

This is why he said לא תעבר, an expression meaning עֶבְרָה (wrath), [thus meaning "don't be wrathy at me!"]. And it also explains why he said בי, specifically at me – for I am the king. As it says in Proverbs 20: “The fear of a king is as the roaring of a lion: whoso provoketh him to anger sinneth against his own soul.” And because he had raged at Moses, the Israelites [and not Moses] needed to speak to him the second time. They needed to use language which was unambiguous, and eliminate any reference to the double entendre. This is why the language is different in verse 19. And the king’s response to that was simply לא תעבר, “you may not pass through”, without the word בי.

Gabriel finds this frightfully clever, but utterly unconvincing as an explanation of the targum, saying “Eisenberg is making his own ‘medrash,’ as it were.” (This, by the way, is what I mean by “fruitful.”)

On reflection, I’m inclined to take a lesson from an exchange I heard in the Hadar kitchen between an Israeli and an American. They were arguing over the proportions of water and soap to use when doing dishes. The American, used to thinking of water as an unlimited resource, used little soap and much water. The Israeli, used to thinking of water as a valuable and expensive resource, used little water and comparatively much soap.

How’s that work? Well, if you’re used to thinking of water as plentiful, you are inclined to look at the exchange between Moses and the King of Edom and think “What’s all the fuss? It’s only water. They’re even going to pay for it.” But what is as ubiquitous as, yet more valued than, water? Women. This Targum Yerushalmi suggests to me, at any rate, that for the King of Edom, water is as guarded a commodity as women. Perhaps he is reluctant to let a horde of Israelites drink up his limited water supplies. Just as you can’t offer to pay him for his women, so too you can’t offer to pay him for his water.

Not as elegant a solution, perhaps.

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