Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Anomalies and Interpretations

The writing of a Torah scroll is an incredibly intricate process. To write a Torah, the scribe must not only be meticulous and devout, but must know all of the many laws associated with writing a Torah. Additionally, there are numerous places where traditional anomalies are built into the text. Sometimes this means a letter is written larger than others, and sometimes smaller. For each of these apparently odd letters, however, Jewish tradition has a reason and a meaning.

An excellent example of a Torah anomaly and its interpretation can be found at the end of the tenth chapter of the Book of Numbers. Verses 35 and 36 are offset by the Hebrew letter nun written backward. In the Talmudic Tractate Shabbat (115b - 116a), two separate but fascinating reasons are offered as to why these nuns are inserted into the text.

The sage Rabbi declared that these verses were set apart because they constitute a book unto themselves. (He thus divides the Torah into Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and three separate books from the Book of Numbers.) As a proof text, Rabbi cites Rabbi Samuel ben Nahamia in the name of Rabbi Jonathan, who explained the verse "She [wisdom] has hewn out her seven pillars" (Psalms 9:1) as referring to seven Books of Law.

Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel, on the other hand, explained that these verses were offset because they were deliberately written in the wrong place in order to separate two shameful incidents where Israel deserved punishment. The first incident is Numbers 10:33, when the Israelites “moved away from the mount of the Lord,” which Rabbi Hama ben Rabbi Hanina explained as reference to the Israelits turning away from God (Talmud Shabbat 116a). The second incident is recorded in Numbers 11, which begins, “And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord” (11:1).

According to Rabbi Hama benHanina, Numbers 10:35-36 should be part of the earlier section dealing with the banners of the Israelites and the way in which the large camp moved (Numbers 2).

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