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 hasoferet.com.

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February 2017

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