This is based on a talk I gave a few weeks ago, on Shabbat Bereshit. It concerns the reading for the second year of the triennial cycle, which starts in chapter 4, in which God creates beings with plurality, male and female.

זה ספר תולדות אדם ביום ברוא אלקים את האדם בדמות אלקים עשה אותו, זכר ונקבה בראם, ויברך אותם ויקרא את שמם אדם ביום הבראם
This is the book of the generations of mankind. On the day that Elohim created mankind, in the image of elohim he made it; male and female he made them. And he blessed them, and he called their name mankind on the day of their creation.

In the sefer Bet Haverim read from this year, the first letter of the paragraph looks like the image at left, ordinary zayin.

In their new sefer, the first letter looks like the image at right. The zayin has a little curl on its right-hand side.

This new sefer has a lot of little annotations like this. The annotations invite you to look deeper.

The phrase These are the generations of… crops up a number of times in the Torah. What’s different about this one? Well, Nachmanides thinks that Ze sefer means the entire Torah; this book which tells the history of mankind from its beginning. The Talmudic sage Ben Azzai thinks that this verse is the most important verse in the entire Torah, because it contains the foundations of all morality (against Hillel, who thinks Love thy neighbour as thyself is the most important, but we digress).
You see also that this verse has two instances of the word Elohim, which normally look like the image above, but in this new sefer looks like the image below: two letters in the word have multiple tagin on them.

One commentator says these may be functioning as delete marks; if you ignore the letters marked up by the tagin, you are left with the singular word El, making the point that although Elohim seems to be a plural word, you should be in no doubt that it is a singular quantity. In context, this could be a commentary on the nature of the beings created by God; although the language suggests that they are plural (compare the interpretation that says originally these beings were multi-gendered dual-body creatures which were separated only at a later date), you should make no mistake that they were actually singular.

Tagin also invite us to think about additions, rather than deletions. What does a set of three tagin bring to mind? Maybe it invites us to look for threes. For instance, look in the verse, at the letters following the three instances of the word adam. Alef-bet, alef-bet, alef-bet. Av, av, av. Three fathers. What other threes come to mind?

We’re asking what might be hinted at by three tagin on top of the regular letters. This might remind us of pardes–peshat, remez, drash, sod–and the three extra exegetical layers which ride above the plain text.

You might ask why all this exegesis is necessary. Why not just write it all out explicitly? Surely that would be easier. Well, one answer is that God was being merciful–has hakadosh barukh hu al mamonam shel yisrael–if it was all written out explicitly, it would be all but impossible to fulfil the mitzvah of ketivah sefer Torah.

Which sounds like a joke, until you consider the Talmud, which is the fifth-century attempt to do just that, write everything down explicitly, and how many complete copies of the Talmud–the central text of rabbinic Judaism–survived the Middle Ages? One. Just one. The bigger the book, the harder it is to ensure its survival.

So the traditions of extra tagin serve as easy-to-write reminders of extra content. Footnote markers, a hint that something extra is going on. The challenge is to remember the footnotes, a challenge which we have largely failed at this point.

So in our verse, what’s going on? To explain one idea, first we need to talk about the mechanics of writing God’s name.

Before writing the combination of letters representing God’s name, a scribe has to have the intention that God is the subject. Consider the letter string alef-lamed; sometimes it means God, sometimes it means a god in general, sometimes it means towards, sometimes it means don’t. Before you write it, you need to know which it is; we say it’s the thought that counts and the scribes’ code takes that literally.

Generally, the meaning is clear from context; it is holy, or it isn’t. But sometimes it isn’t clear. Sometimes it’s ambiguous, and will remain so till the coming of Elijah. In our verse, the first Elohim has the status of definitely-holy, and the second has the status of permanently-ambiguous. Was man really created in the literal image of God?

Consider those three fathers, above; one opinion thinks that the three fathers were created in the literal image of God, but subsequent generations were not. We also find these tagin in the first paragraphs of the first creation story, where three tagin emphasise hu v’lo malakh, hu v;lo saraf, hu v’lo shaliach–words we recognise from the Passover liturgy: He and not an angel; He and not a seraph; He and not a messenger. It’s possible that the tagin here, on the ambiguous Elohim, are a tradition expressing an opinion on the question.

There are a great many threes that three tagin could be hinting at. We’ll finish with another three, the three judges on a bet din. Elohim means judge, and the commentator Sforno says that our verse means mankind was created baal bechira, a master of choice, a possessor of free will. Three tiny lines serve as a powerful reminder of humanity’s capabilities and responsibilities.

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February 2017

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