DR8-R12b is a Tribute to Nathan Marcus Adler, from the Jewish community of Hanover. (Check out Wikipedia; he has an epic hat, and even more epic sideburns.)

The Tribute is dated 1879, the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination (according to the JTS catalogue). As well as the numerical date, it has a nice Hebrew chronogram:

Image copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission.

That is, שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת, four words from Malakhi 2:7, For the priest’s lips guard knowledge, and they shall seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. The large letters with dots over them–שכהישד–add up to 639, and 5639 in the Jewish calendar corresponds to 1879 in the Christian one.

My alma mater has a chronogram; one of its alumni went on to build the Dyson-Perrins laboratory building in Oxford, and it has a plaque saying baLLIoLensIs feCI hyDatoeCVs o sI MeLIVs. This means “I, Waterhouse of Balliol, made this. Would it were better.” (Note that this is an extreme of pretentiousness; Waterhouse had to render his name into Latin to get it to work.) Date comes out to 1914.

Latin ones have a different feel; some (or preferably all) of the Roman-numeral letters (you know, IVXLCDM) make up the date. If you can’t get it such that all the number-letters make the date, you have to indicate which ones you want people to read. Since all letters in Hebrew have a numeric value, if you want to do it most elegantly such that all the letters make the date, you have a lot more flexibility in how you compose your date, but much less ability to pad your sentence with filler words.

Anyway, Adler was the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1845-1890. He was a scholarly type, with a university degree and all. He was also a cohen. So this is a great verse to attach to him.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Isn’t this sweet? It’s the little letter aleph in “Vayikra,” but it’s a particularly tiny version, where the height of the whole letter aleph is same as the width of the quill used for the other letters.


The regular letters in this sefer, by the way, were 7mm high. Huge!

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Ever wonder what makes heavy Torahs so heavy?

Size is part of it, of course. Before Good Electric Lighting and Universal Spectacles (in the eyecare sense, not in the entertainment sense), having bigger letters helped the reader. Line height these days is regularly 8mm, only two-thirds the size of the letters on older, bigger Torahs.

But another thing is coating. Torahs used commonly to be coated with a substance called log, a plaster-based white stuff that made the parchment pretty and white and heavy. See this next pic, klaf viewed from the back – clicky to see bigger – on the left, splotchily applied log; on the right, brush-marks.

That’s basically a thin layer of stone, right there on the parchment, and the thing about stone is that it’s darn heavy.

I work with so many synagogues that have these enormous heavy Torahs that no-one can lift. They never get used because there’s no-one in the congregation who can do hagbah with them – they barely even get taken out on Simchat Torah, poor things. But these Torahs used to be used, once upon a time. What happened?

I already suggested that we can have smaller Torahs these days because we have better synagogue lighting and more people have specs. I also think that we need smaller Torahs these days because we don’t have people who can lift them any more. Where are the blacksmiths, the butchers, the carpenters? the carters, the porters, the men who worked with their muscles for a living and on Shabbat they lifted the Torah? They’ve all gone, replaced by power tools.

Without getting overly nostalgic for times when women routinely died in childbirth (except in today’s USA where they still do, lucky us!) and their children died in infancy and their husbands died young in industrial accidents, I do get a little sad for these big old Torahs, standing solid and beautiful in the backs of arons all over the country, their lovely big legible script unseen and unread, as we read our tiny light Torahs with our halogen lights and our contact lenses and bear them aloft with our feeble withered arms.

beautiful big letters

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Kohelet scroll, wrappedIn Little Letters in Eicha, parts one and two, I talked about lamed, ayin, and tet.

The little lamed was serving as a reminder-flag, telling you to recall other, relevant, words beginning with lamed. The little ayin had to do with numerical symbolism.

The little tet had numerical symbolism and reminder-flagging, all of it connected to the destruction of the Temple in various ways.

That recap over, let's move to Kohelet, pictured here in a festive green wrapping (you recall Eicha was wrapped in bodacious black...Megillot are fun like this, you can dress them up in seasonal clothes).

Eicha, if you remember, had a lot of white space. Kohelet has barely any. There's one break right at the beginning, a good deal in the Song of Times (I'll do a picture of that later), and then it's just a Text Wall of...well, I was going to use internet parlance and say a Text Wall of Doom, but it's not really Doom. A Text Wall of Gloom, perhaps? A Text Wall of Gloom Tempered With Hedonistic Pragmatism?

We digress. The point is that Kohelet has basically no section breaks; one at the beginning, none in the middle, and none at the end either.

Big Tet in KoheletWhat it does have, at the end, is a Big Tet.

(The writing's not great. I was rushing rather, to get it finished before yom tov - I only had ten days, and it's not a short book.)

So, the big tet? Quite possibly just a way of saying "New section, chaps!"

But that's far too prosaic.

Back to Tzvi Ron and his Sefer Katan v-Gadol (and G. Wasserman's translation).

The Big Tet is in the phrase טוב שם משמן טוב - a Good name is better than good oil.
The Rokeiach (חסידי אשכנז) says: טוב שם משמן טוב -- the tet is large, because a good name has a LOT of good.

There's another large tet in Tanakh, in Job: יסר מעלי שבטו- "Let him take his rod away from me."
Job is complaining about his great suffering, being beaten by God's staff. מסורת הברית הגדול, section 1518, says that that big tet links to our big tet here in Kohelet, and demonstrates that suffering is ultimately good.

On the other hand, Rav Dovid Tevele (17th- or early 18th-century Hamburg) says that the large tet in טוב שם משמן טוב is a hyperlink to the small tet in Ekha, טבעו בארץ שעריה‬, with a popup from the Midrash.

Remember the bit when Tamar was going to be burned for whoring around?

According to the Targum Yerushalmi, she lost Judah's pledge (his seal and staff and cord), and she prayed to God to let her find it, and thus rescue herself from being burnt, so that she might ultimately be the ancestor of three tzaddikim who would be untouched by fire - namely, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the book of Daniel.

According to Shemot Rabba 48:1, our verse טוב שם משמן טוב -- a good name is better than good oil -- means that the "good name" of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah was better than the "good oil" with which Nadav and Avihu were anointed, when they first became priests.

So, R' Tevele comments:
When the temple was destroyed (טבעו בארץ שעריה, with a small tet) and the anointing-oil of the priests was no more -- nevertheless, in that cold exile, three tzaddikim arose, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and their good name (large tet) overwhelmed the destruction of the temple (small tet).

So, God paid us back for the loss of the Temple, by giving us tzaddikim, who were even greater. And hopefully, in the merit of further tzaddikim like them, נזכה למלך המשיח ויעלה השערים הנטבע בעו"ה ויקים סוכת דוד הנופלת במהרה אמן‬, may God send the Messiah, who will bring up the gates of the Temple, which had sunk (טבעו, with small tet) deep into the ground, at the time of the Destruction.

I’ve not posted much on the Big and Little Letters in Torah, have I? And now I’m posting on the Little Letters in Eicha – well, I’m between Torahs at the moment, and indulging in a spate of megillot, Eicha amongst them, which has something to do with it.

Little Lamed in Eicha
(Sofer Boyfriend wrote this one.)
לוא אליכם כל עברי דרך הביטו וראו אם יש מכאוב כמכאבי אשר עולל לי אשר הוגה יקוק ביום חרון אפו Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.

There’s a whole tradition of interpreting the Big and Small letters. A few of them are in the Gemara, where the context is Explaining Something Everyone Knows more than Telling You How To Do This New Thing; the rest of them have been around for something like a thousand years but mostly we didn’t write down explanations, so they’ve suffered the usual fates of verbal explanations — ambition, distraction, uglification and derision — as you might imagine.

Anyway. Sometimes a Little Letter is interpreted as suggesting a particular Littleness. You may be familar with one from Torah, explained thus: “The conceits of the Cabalistic writers are most curious; for instance, they suppose that Abraham wept but little for Sarah, because a remarkably small letter — “Caph” — is used in the Hebrew word which describes Abraham’s tears, thus evincing that his grief was also small.” (That’s a footnote in a book from 1862 about anagrams; don’t take it too strongly to heart. I just liked the style.)

What would be the Littleness here? I’m going to quote from a book by one Tzvi Ron, ספר קטן וגדול, Gush Etzion, 2006, translated by G. Wasserman:

R. Shelomo Alqabes explains that the allusion is to the smallness of the Jews’ prayer to be spared from punishment: “Their prayer was not offered בעין טובה [generously], for there is no goodness for the wicked.” In Sefer Elyashiv, it explains the smallness as being the smallness of learning a lesson, for the gentile nations did not learn a lesson from seeing that God had punished the Jewish people for their sins.

Tzvi Ron also says “According to Midrash R. ‘Aqiva, it is a hint to words which begin with lamed, for the Jewish people had once been לראש, and now were לזנב.”

You might reasonably point out that lots of words begin with lamed and this concept cannot be uniformly applied, yes. So you might reasonably conclude either that there’s more to it than that but we’ve lost the tradition, or that you should go read the Midrash R. ‘Aqiva and see if it addresses that point.

What I want to take away from this particular point is the idea that a Little Letter is not just a mouseover interpretation, it’s a sort of ambiguation — like a Wikipedia disambiguation, but the other way over — the suggestion that there are vague links here to other instances of that letter. This point to be developed in part 2, coming soon.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.



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February 2017

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